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Published: October 14th 2010
Seeing the broken wreckage of a military helicopter near the runway of Sana’a International Airport as my flight landed confirmed most people’s impressions of Yemen - a dangerous and lawless land where there is an average of three guns for every man, woman and child the country. The other impression of a conservative and closeted country was apparent earlier on my flight, for if one turned their gaze from the landscape of burnt hills that arose from the pale desert, they would notice that every woman on the flight wore a niqab
. Many people had warned me away from visiting here due to the security situation, but the lure of the Old City of Sana’a proved too strong.
Yemen’s claim of being the poorest country on the Arabian peninsula became quickly apparent. Gone were the modern facilities and gleaming terminals of other middle Eastern airports such as Dubai and Doha, instead I entered the immigration queue at a darkly drab and dated building that would be more likely to see in the father reaches of Africa.
After receiving an entry stamp in my passport, I passed into a dreary baggage claim area where my baggage was checked. For the
second time in as many years (the previous instance being North Korea), my camera caused much consternation. The official’s eyes widened when he glared at my sizable Nikon D300 and he immediately spat out, “You journalist?!”, and before I could answer he scuttled off to find his supervisor.
Shortly after, another gentleman with a serious countenance arrived, glanced at my camera and its accompanying lens, and stated, “Journalist?!” Thinking it now an appropriate time to commence using the Arabic I had been dutifully learning for the past five months whilst working to and from work, I replied “La, hukooma”
(“No, government”). The official continued, “How long are you here?”, and again my reply came in Arabic, ”Hamsa yom”
(“Five days”). A pause ensued, so I added in English, “I’m tourist”. Another pause followed. The official's eyes began to smile before the rest of his face revealed his inner thoughts, and with a large grin he pronounced, “Enjoy your stay” and strode off. This was not the only time when people would question if I was a journalist during my stay in Sana’a.
After exiting the airport, I was soon in a taxi heading to my hotel in historical
Boy working in father's tailor store - Yemen, Sana'a
Many children would work in their family's stores once they finished school.
Old Sana’a. Though a capital city, the roads varied for dual carriageways to potholed dirt and bitumen roads, all lined by buildings of varying dishevelment. It was a stark comparison to my most recent stop of Kuwait City.
I audibly gasped as when entered the Old City, for it was as if I had just arrived in a town lifted from the pages of an Arabian fairytale. The taxi drove through the twisting roads which lay at the bottom of narrow canyons of towering thin buildings, with facades resembling gingerbread houses decorated with vanilla frosting. Men dressed in loose earthy-coloured clothes with a solid jambiya
(dagger) hanging from the front of their belts idled to their destination and children frolicked in the streets, squealing and chasing each other in frivolous games.
The narrowness of the roads prevented the taxi taking me to the door of my hotel, so I collected my backpacks and concluded the last part of my journey by foot. The hotel was a typically narrow building of this area which are normally made from stone, mud-blocks or bricks. Climbing the steep stairs to my lovely corner room with arabesque furniture, wooden shutters that creaked in
the wind, carved skylights and whitewashed walls, the room overlooked a communal garden where neighbouring residents would share an open plot of land. I was thankful for the room upgrade, mainly due to me being the only guest.
I immediately plunged into the marvel that is Old Sana’a, and in doing so, stepped back to an age many centuries past, men would haggle at the donkey markets at the price of their beasts, camels still being used to grind oils, and the sharp sound of metal marked the work of a blacksmith. The souqs
(markets) contained a array of items; everything from spices, grains, through to clothing and oversized brass ornaments. Some shops were small, no more than two metres wide but much deeper, whilst others were more substantial so one could walk inside. I was gaining a lot of attention from people during my roamings because I seemed to be the only tourist in the city. In fact, it took three days before I managed to meet other foreigners.
As is typical with the Middle East, the richest resource is the people. I am unsure what tourism campaign the government has embarked upon, but the most common
English expression I heard was “Welcome to Yemen!” This phrase was only surpassed by the word ”Zoora!”
(Photo). Children and male adults would was request a picture and then look with eager anticipation at the images on my camera. The quieter children would pass a coy smile and slink away, whilst the more boisterous would squeal and laugh. These people never asked for any money for taking their photo, no pens, no food - they just wanted the simple joy of seeing their own image. It is these travel experiences that explain why the Middle East is my favourite region of the world.
The hospitality of the city was almost overwhelming, with men both young and old wishing to show me around their city, offer me a coffee, soft drink or food. It reinforced an observation gathered in my travels that the less possessions people own, the more generous they tend to be.
However, there was a slightly troubled side to this city, for qat is a mild hallucinogenic plant whose consumption has reached epidemic proportions. Often one would see men with discoloured teeth and bulbous cheeks chewing away at a mass of qat leaves. I attended a
wedding reception and the room was full of boys and men consuming qat; though alcohol is forbidden due to religious reason, qat is the addictive substitute of choice.
I spoke to a few men who never partook in this habit and they lamented its popularity and the deleterious effects it was having on their city - the drain on family incomes and the long-term health side-effects cited as just two reasons. From my observations, Qat was more of a societal problem than the prevalence of guns, even though some nights I could hear the distant sound of guns, most likely a wedding celebration so I thought...and hoped.
The one noticeable absence in Sana’a were the women, for the only time one would espy them in any number was near to sunset, when for a brief time, the streets became theirs, as their darkly clad packs swarmed through the markets. Many times women would lower their eyes when I passed them, but occasionally some would establish eye contact with me - it is remarkable what beauty can be conveyed in a person’s eyes. I would always smile in acknowledgment and sometimes, their eyes would briefly sparkle as they smiled
Camel feeding time - Sana'a, Yemen
Camels are used to grind oil in the Old City
The role of women in this society is very controlled and restricted - as much by societal pressures than any legal regulations. During my visit to Yemen, I only saw a handful of women who wore the hijab
, the rest opting to cover their full face with the niqab
Women were almost always segregated from men and if an unmarried female was to meet with a member of the opposite sex, it was at their moral peril. Once in a restaurant, a woman with her face uncovered was happily talking to her male friend; however, this dramatically changed when other women entered the room, for she immediately covered her face and left the area.
Thinking that I would never get to speak to any adult women in the country, I was pleasantly surprised one late afternoon when a group of four women sat an adjoining table in a restaurant - and they had all opted for the hijab
, the first and only time I would witness a group of females presented in this manner. The eldest one, whose name was Nada, who was having dinner with her nieces, soon questioned me about my travels and
I was invited to join them for dinner to show them photos of Australia on my computer; the koalas and kangaroos were particularly popular.
Nada was an archaeologist, and her three nieces were studying and intended to pursue a career. Thankfully, their parents were supportive of this new face of Yemen. These ladies were confident and independent and they even offered their hand to shake mine when we finally parted.
We walked through the streets together, and it was obvious that their appearance was not the norm for many young men would silently stare aghast. I waited with the ladies until they had hailed a taxi and commenced their journey home. When they departed, one of the local people asked me if they were from Yemen, such was the unusual nature of their attire in the eyes of other Yemenites. I was so proud of Nada and her three nieces - for they were courageous amongst the conformity, and they boldly followed the life that they wished to lead.
I returned to my hotel, the streets were dark, but so were the buildings, for power shortages were not uncommon. This was a pity, for it prevented me
from another sighting of Sana’a, the most beautiful and magical city I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.
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