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Travels in Wonderland

I could not sleep. I wandered dream-like through a fairy-tale land. I was surrounded by giant cakes, storeys high, a delicate white icing highlighting the windows and tracing fragile patterns on the walls and crenellations. Wafts of incense and perfume delighted my olfactory senses. Black shapes ghosted past me. Men walked past their cheeks full of gobstoppers. Children ran amok, screaming with delight at the whizzing and banging of firecrackers. Everywhere people hailed me, saying that I was welcome.

I wasn’t dreaming but it felt like it. I was in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.  Stereotypes - some of which are none to reassuring - fill the mind at the mention of Yemen. Toyota pick-ups crammed full of militant men in white zannah, wearing jackets (invariably with the label still on the sleeve), and red and white headdresses. Whilst such stereotypes do exist, the mistake has been to pigeonhole Yemen.

Marib is the ancient capital of Sheba whose former prosperity was largely due to the impressive great dam built in the eighth century BC, a dam that was 720 metres long and 35 meters high. In the Marib of today I arrived to find a worrying amount of the population, including barely adolescent boys, sporting Kalashnikovs. Hassan, my guide, merely ascribed it to what he called the “Bedouin characteristic”

It would be easy for me to overreact, to typecast, and see Marib as a lawless, gun-toting city. The ancient mud-brick fortified granary stores merely evidence that this tribal fighting is deep rooted. The truth is that not once was I made to feel unwelcome, not once did I feel at all threatened. I cannot say the same for London. Yes there are guns but it is no less safe than London, the only difference being that the guns are more visible, and not being used to this it can be disquieting.

There have been and are problems with kidnappings but these are confined to certain areas of the country, no go zones. In the same way that one would not go to certain areas of New York, Nairobi or Newcastle there are areas to be avoided in Yemen. I am not being cavalier – I have two young daughters – but do not want to damn the whole country with the actions of a few individuals.

I am not so arrogant to presume that I know the country and its peoples after all too brief a stay, but I did come to understand that the reality is more complex. Problems between countries are problems between governments and do not manifest themselves into problems between peoples. The overwhelming reception I received throughout my stay in Yemen was one of welcome and friendliness.

Furthermore, the Yemenis have a great sense of humour. Tim Mackintosh-Smith in his excellent ‘Travels in Dictionary Land’ gives evidence to this. A young blind girl longing for a husband continually brought the subject up with her father. His reply was that no one wanted her but that she would find a husband in paradise. One day she tripped and fell off a roof but by chance fell into a passing lorry full of bananas and was knocked unconscious. When she came to, she believed she was dead, felt the bananas, remembered what her father had said and shrieked “Slowly, slowly, men of Paradise. Please take your turn!”

Another Yemeni joke I heard was that Adam, of Eve fame, was taken back to earth by an angel to see how it now looked. Flying over the world Adam would look quizzically down on unfamiliar regions and ask what they were. “Oh that is France,” the angel would reply. Or “that is the USA”, or that is “Jordan”. Flying over the Arabian Peninsula, Adam remarked, “There’s Yemen.” “How did you know that?” questioned the angel. “Nothing has changed,” was Adam’s reply.

The joke obviously loses something in translation and my paraphrasing but suffice to say it is a good illustration, and perhaps endorsement, of the fact that Yemen is still very authentic. That time stands still in the land of Sheba. This really struck home in various black and white photographs I saw of Yemen in the 1930s – the only two differences between then and now were the modern day profusion of motor vehicles and plastic.

My Alice-like enchantment with Sana’a did not prevent me from seeing a less prosaic side of the country. Plastic bags are a plague that litter most villages and are indicative of a poverty and malaise. The former is due to a number of circumstances, ranging from the harsh terrain to the government’s isolation by the rest of the world; the latter is no small part to green chocolate, namely qat. This privet-like leaf is bought and sold in fevered transactions and chewed with disengaged relish, a small plastic bag of which costs anything from 500 Riel (Approx US$2.50) to 1,500 Riel. That might not sound much to us but on average Yemeni men are reckoned to spend a third of their income on qat, often to the detriment of feeding their families.

The fact that Yemen is authentic does not mean that it is stuck in a time warp. I often saw the Jahmbiya, a curved dagger, worn in tandem with a mobile phone. Its ancient houses are still lived in; its towns are not museums. The streets of today are vibrant and full of life, perhaps not more so than in Wadi Hadramawt.

Driving through the desert, dissolved and then scoured by wind and water over millennia into depressions and valleys, we dropped into the sunken world of Wadi Hadramawt. A deep scar of a valley, over one hundred and fifty kilometres long, Wadi Hadramawt is a veritable Eden in the harsh surrounds of the desert. The rich green of the fields of maize and the date palms lie in verdant contrast to the arid and parched limestone escarpment that towers hundreds of metres over the floor of the wadi. It oozed wealth, contentment and honey. Wadi Hadramawt is reputed to have the best honey in the world – I sincerely hope so given that I paid US$25 for half a kilo of premium honey. 

The toy-town tower blocks of houses added a surreal and other-worldly enchantment. Appealing and intriguing, they are even more incredible when you realise that they are simply made of earth, straw and water. Cement has arrived, giving rise to a strange fusion of ancient and modern, but the mud-brick remains the basic element and the easiest to use. Large flat bricks of mud and straw are dried in the sun and mortared and then plastered over with more of the same. The building is then given a limestone icing that both waterproofs it and lends it an air of romance and fantasia.

Shibam, dubbed the ‘Manhattan of the Desert’ by Freya Stark in the 1930s, is the picture postcard image that sells Yemen. Individually the houses are no more remarkable than many others in Yemen but collectively they stand together to make a very picturesque whole; so much so that every sunset tourists make the daily pilgrimage up a conveniently located rocky outcrop to capture it on film. Meanwhile down in the old city I walked around the dusty streets impressed by the heavy decorative doors, admiring the eight stories of mud-brick, absorbed by the visual whole. Goats wander aimlessly, girls in pretty party frocks play hopscotch, men sit indolently watching nothing. Dust and inertia hang heavy in the air. Whilst superficially pretty, within it is sad and soulless.

Feeling flat after Shibam, I returned to Seiyun and sat at a small roadside café watching the world go by. Hassan chatted about the town’s past. Under the communist rule there was nothing but dust and dirt. Now, he correctly pointed out, there was tarmac, there were motorbikes, there was an energy that had been lacking in Shibam.

Driving out of Wadi Hadramwat in the early morning was as magical as our arrival. A witches’ coven of women dressed from head to toe in black, with tall pointed straw hats, huddled together as they worked in the field. We passed through Al Hatwa, a town of no real note except that I enjoyed the unobtrusive vitality of its market. Battered old Toyotas, barely recognisable under the scrapes, dents and broken bumpers; the banter of barter blaring out from loudspeakers; men with heavy dark beards absent-mindedly cleaning their teeth with meswak; the pungent smell of dried fish, the exotic smells of spices; an eclectic mix of faces and features. All men. All alien. None hostile.

Before driving into the desert we did two things, in their different ways, to insure our safe passage through the desert. We let the air out of the car tyres to give them more purchase in the sand and were met by our guide, Mubarak, a Bedouin with proud, aquiline features, few words and a Kalashnikov.

Crossing the desert was invigorating. Skirting the edge of Rub al Kali, the famed Empty Quarter with the largest sand seas in the world, we raced across a vast flat expanse of desert with huge horizons. Insouciant, I was uplifted by the sense of space and freedom. It was like free-wheeling on your bicycle down a steep hill on a hot summer’s day with the wind in your face.

The laconic Mubarak suddenly stopped and motioned ‘Do you want to drive?’ I accepted without hesitation and was soon behind the wheel with a boyish look of glee on my face. It was exhilarating to be speeding across the soft sand. Mubarak nodded his approval. With the slightest flick of his hand would direct me left and right across the desert, imperceptibly and unerringly steering me out of trouble.

As my confidence grew so did my speed. So much so that I became blasé, not paying enough attention to Mubarak’s quiet warning to slow down. Thump; a slight depression had been a little bigger than I thought. I looked guiltily at Mubarak expecting him to be annoyed at the unnecessary hammering I had just given his 4x4. Not at all, all I got was a smile and a look of I told you so. We did, however, change places shortly afterwards.

Unable to resist showing off the full range of his driving talents, Mubarak veered off towards a line of sand dunes. Revving the engine in the soft sand, he headed to the crest of the highest dune. I shook my head in disbelief but he smiled in disagreement. Up, up and not over – we got stuck on the lip of the dune staring down at the steep drop on the other side. I smiled and looked at Mubarak to say I told you so. We did not change places.

That and many other images come to mind of Yemen. It is an incredibly visual country. The stunning terraces, dramatic mountains and impressive dunes of the mainland contrast with the dazzling clear waters and brilliant white sands of the island of Socotra in the Red Sea.  Charming, bizarre houses, bearded men bearing daggers and women all in black are images indelibly etched into my memory.

The black sharshaf – a woman’s outer garment consisting of skirt, cape and veil – is a powerful symbol. Arguably more a symbol of the failing of the west to understand the Arab world and what lies behind the veil. This is a world, that being male, I was not privy to. I do however know that there is a female judge on the Supreme Court, 42% of the voters at the recent presidential were women, women drive and have far greater freedom than in many other Arab states. Yemen is not just one dimensional.

I arrived back in Sana’a more worldly-wise but still enchanted. Walking around the old town on my last night I was once again bewitched.  Still held in its spell.


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