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Published: November 7th 2010
How did I end up here? Sitting in a mosque in Sana’a during evening prayer, I am the only non-Muslim amongst the 500 men who are standing, kneeling and praying in ordered lines. From my squatted position in the centre of the mosque, the men clothed in traditional Yemeni garments tower over me, as their gentle reverential and sonorous iterations fall upon my ears.
This experience commenced a few hours earlier whilst wandering though the souqs in Sana’a, that cacophony of hawking and haggling where I was often accosted by different people. There was the man who informed me that Yemeni women made great wives, and he spoke with some authority since he had three of them. Then there was an elderly man who walked beside me as we weaved through the shopping frenzy and the whole conversation was in rudimentary Arabic; those language lessons were now reaping huge rewards.
But then there was a kindly gentleman called Dr Manea Al-Hazmi who also espied me wandering through the streets. The doctor’s English was extremely good and soon the conversation turned to Islam, as it usually does in this portion of the world: What do you know about Islam? What
is your opinion of it? Do you believe in God? Seeing that I gave suitably agreeable answers, Dr Al-Hazmi invited me to discuss Islam with a scholar at a local madrassa
(school) called The Cultural Center for Foreigners’ Call, for scholarly discussions are always welcome.
At the appointed hour, I met Dr Al-Hazmi who was accompanied by two qat-chewing friends, and we crammed into a taxi heading to the Cultural Centre located in modern Sana’a, an area which had none of the charm of the Old City. After a satisfying and spicy falafel meal, we entered a dimly lit room where we removed our shoes and met the scholar Abdulrahman Al-Sheha along with some of his students. He was obviously a very intelligent man who possessed a calm demeanour which shone through his dark eyes. He epitomised the visual stereotype of an Islamic scholar - a long flowing dark beard speckled with grey that fell across his crisp white thawb
Then commenced a congenial and highly refined conversation about religions with an obvious focus on Islam, but other faiths - such as Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism were introduced. The assembled group were not conversant with the Eastern
Village of Atefer - Haraz Mountains, Yemen
Notice the villagers staring at me from windows and between buildings - visitors to Atefer are rare.
religions of Taosim and Shinto, so I explained these faiths as well. Insufficient space prevents me from detailing the conversation, but the overall message was that conversion to Islam would see me follow the correct path in life.
When the colloquy concluded, I was offered the chance to meet the Imam at the Al-Zubairy Mosque. His name was Muhammad bin Ishmael Al-Amraniy and Dr Al-Hazmi spoke about him in glowing terms. I was unsure whether to accept this offer, not because of Yemen’s reputation for terrorist cells that allegedly breed in madrassas
and mosques, but whether a visit by a non-Muslim would be appropriate. Dr Al-Hazmi confided that some mosques would not welcome non-Muslims, but this one was different. So leaving the others behind, the good doctor and I walked through the back-streets of Sana’a.
Many eyes glanced at me upon entering this modern mosque and I was led to the Imam, a frail, elderly gentleman who was receiving questions from an assembled group requesting guidance on various issues. His responses based on Islamic principals were enthusiastically accepted. I was invited to join this group and was formally introduced to the Imam, who after surveying me through weary
eyes, uttered in Arabic, “When you convert to Islam, you shall be named Muhammad.”
A most intriguing feature of the mosque was that these proceedings were being recorded by a television crew who would be using the footage for broadcast across Yemen. Looking askance, I could see the camera concentrating on my presence, and I wondered what use would be made of this footage - perhaps Islam’s latest convert?
Men commenced arriving for the maghrib
(sunset prayers) and as the numbers increased, Dr Al-Hazmi suggested I stay for the prayers - and I immediately replied yes, as this was a unique opportunity for a non-Muslim. Another man took me for the ritual ablutions, before returning for the prayers, which were fascinating to witness. At the conclusion, I saw a young man approach Dr-Hazmi and point to me in an agitated fashion. Perhaps not everyone was welcoming of a non-Muslim to their mosque. I was considering what apology to offer when Dr-Hazmi and the young man approached me; it seems that he had bumped me when walking past earlier and was concerned that I had taken offence. ”Mafeesh mushkella!”
“No problem!” came my immediate response with a smile, but
inwardly I felt quite guilty for judging the situation in a negative light.
In this mosque as was elsewhere in Yemen I was taught a humbling lesson - that the less possessions people have, the more generous they tend to be. The generosity and genuine warmth I received in the mosque was a stark contrast to the shameful perception of Islam by some sections of the world media. Such ignorance breeds fear, and fear breeds mistrust. A particularly sad situation when you consider the gentleness which the followers of Islam I met in Yemen practiced their religion. Yemen is receiving bad press at present due to certain intercepted parcel bombs, but when considering this, one must separate the actions of a few from the religion of the many.
The next morning, whilst still pondering the previous day, I clutched my security permit that allowed me to leave Sana’a for the nearby Haraz Mountains. My drivers for the day would be Saddam Hussein (obviously not that
one) and his brother Hasham. The car was a dirty, battered yellow vehicle with a badly cracked windscreen, which I spent the best of the day trying to peer through in order to
Imam addressing the Al-Zubairy Mosque - Sana'a, Yemen
You can see a television cameras recording the proceedings on the right.
see the countryside.
We paused at the obligatory checkpoint whilst security personnel obtained clearance from Sana’a, but were soon continuing along surprisingly good quality roads, but sightings of people and other vehicles were uncommon. The first stop in these rugged hills was the Imam’s Palace of Dar Alhajr, a distinctly Yemeni building perched atop a gigantic boulder. Interestingly, most villages either sat at the base or the summit of sheer rock formations. The previously observed status of women in this society was reinforced in the Palace when a slender lady with dark, piercing eyes initiated a conversation. We were the only two in the room and the exchange was light and lively, but that immediately changed when a male entered the room, and she adopted the usual silent demeanour of women here. Such is the anonymity of women in this country.
After leaving the Palace, we espied a water truck dampening the dirt roads heading our way. Knowing the grubby state of our transport, Saddam beckoned the driver to wash his vehicle, and a torrent of water plunged onto the car, obscuring all vision though we were still driving, and pouring into the vehicle, which caused us all
to simultaneously burst into laughter. Next stop was the small earth-coloured village of Thilla where the only activity appeared to be scampering children and a grass-munching goat. I did later meet a local merchant who bemoaned the impact of tourism’s downturn on his business and the empty streets confirmed his worries.
Unfortunately some population centres treated their streets like open garbage tips, and my next stop, Shibam, was one of these. It was a filthy town which had no redeeming features about from the smiling local populace. Thankfully, we soon left and climbed the serpentine roads to Kawkaban - a small village that commanded stunning views perched atop a dizzying precipice. It was here that the brothers began furiously chewing the mildly hallucinogenic qat leaves, and I was more than a trifle worried when Hasham took control of the car to speedily drive along the twisting road with plunging declines bereft of crash barriers. In what was another remarkable moment of my time in Yemen, we reached the valley unscathed. A brief stop in the rarely visited town of Atefer followed before we returned to Sana’a via the same checkpoint we passed many hours earlier.
Once back in
the capital, it was nearly sunset, so I climbed the steep stairs to the hotel’s roof to savour my final panorama of magical Sana’a. A dozen mosques were located within a few hundred metres, so when the golden rim of the sun slipped slowly beneath the hills, the adhan
(call to prayer) issued from a mosque’s loudspeakers. The other mosques followed in quick succession as the darkening city was animated by the pronouncements of prayers praising Allah that echoed off the buildings - a powerful experience. As the minutes passed, the calls gradually lessened, and with the first star appearing in the evening sky, the last minaret fell silent and a hush descended over the city.
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