It was the summer of 2009. Both a great and a bad time to visit the Middle East. Great, because it was prior to the Arab Spring and it was a much more stable time to visit the region. And bad, because every day simmered at over 100 degrees. I was tired of sweating incessantly.
As I barnstormed my way through the area, I kept my Lonely Planet guide close to my side. My jammed itinerary included UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Egypt. I was skipping Saudi Arabia and Iran due to onerous visa challenges. And avoiding Iraq due to the war. I would have to wait for my next visit. I was also avoiding Yemen. Why? Because I was a little nervous. Yemen has a reputation, and it is not for welcoming westerners. A warning from the US State Department: “Terrorist groups actively target tourist groups, with targeted suicide bombings and armed ambushes occurring yearly since 2007”. But the more I thumbed through my Lonely Planet, the more I became intrigued.
Sanaa one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city was home of the “world’s first skyscraper”. My eyes constantly drifted to the photos of the Old Sanaa. I had to go. I had to witness this place. My footsteps needed to trace ancient history. I was too close geographically to be bypassing Yemen. While visiting Syria (another country I almost skipped due to media stereotypes) I pulled the trigger and purchased my flight to Yemen. At an internet café, I snacked on pistachios and lazily browsed on a dated computer, I clenched my teeth and a chill traced my spine.
“3 foreign women dead in Yemen, al-Qaida suspected” the headline blurted out. Three women were slaughtered while another six were missing while picnicking. My flight to Yemen was in less than 24 hours.
I hastily considered canceling my three day trip to Yemen, but my stinginess outweighed any concern. I had already prepaid for my trip. My original strategy (before even reading the article) was to make my trip short and sweet. I determined a three day trip would provide fewer opportunities for my would-be kidnappers. I stated this tongue-in-cheek, for I really needed to be in Tanzania in several days. I didn’t imagine my flippant reasoning might come to fruition.
There were some tremendous highlights from my brief visit and like many trips, a couple of negative experiences. In retrospect, I wish I could have spent longer visiting this amazingly unique and interesting country.
The Rock Palace
No, this is not a cool club on Sunset Boulevard, this is an iconic palace perched on a rock pinnacle. The palace rests in the Wadi Dhahr Valley, some 15 km away from the capital of Sanaa. The palace is formally known as Dar al-Hajar. The palace was constructed in the 1930s and was the summer home of the Imam Yahya, leader of Yemen from 1904 until his assassination in 1948. This five story structure seems to sprout from its rock foundation. The rock palace is a magnificent example of Yemeni architecture.
Old City of Sanaa
The Old City of Sanaa is a magical and mythical place. It is a tremendous disappointment that this city is for all intensive purposes off-limits. This city has been inhabited for over 2500 years. The entire city has the feel of a living museum. You could wander through the myriads of alleys and souqs for days on end. The city boasts over 100 mosques and over 6000 houses. These structures are considered to be the first skyscrapers in the world. The oldest of them date back 1400 years and will peak at 7 stories. This UNESCO World Heritage city’s perfection is embodied by its homogeneity. The skyscrapers’ first floor is constructed of stone and above that of rammed earth and burnt brick. The buildings are decorated with geometric patterns and stained glass windows. It is a beauty to behold.
I have a fascination with the khat culture found on the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. Khat is a shrub-like plant that is a mild narcotic similar to amphetamines. In Yemen, it is chewed by up to 90% of the men and about 25% of the women. Alcohol is forbidden in Yemen, and khat acts as a social lubricant similar to coffee or a mug of beer. As the afternoon grows longer in Yemen, you will note growing lumps in the mouths of passing Yemenis. I have witnessed khat chewing in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somaliland, but the level of khat chewing in Yemen is astounding. My one experience chewing khat was disappointing, not only did I not get a buzz, but it tasted like a pinch of sour grass squished between my cheeks.
And khat is having a detrimental effect on the Yemeni society. The average Yemeni chews $5 of khat a day. This is a difficult to sustain with a per capital income of around $1500. Khat which is grown in dry Yemen requires an abundance of water. Thirty percent of Yemen’s water is directed to the growth of khat. These two factors alone are a recipe for a disaster for a struggling society.
“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to Yemen and strongly urge British nationals to leave.” Short and sweet. The British are strongly advising not to travel to Yemen.
My plane touched down in Sanaa and I was transported to my hotel in Old Sanaa at dusk. I was excited to explore the alleys of this ancient city. After some time, I decided to drink a cool banana-mango juice (remember no alcohol).
“You from America?” the shop keeper questioned.
“No,” I defensively replied.
“You shirt, you American.” I stared down in horror. I had the horrible foresight of wearing my New England Patriots t-shirt. The logo if you are not aware contains the stars and stripes. This was a unique shirt since it also included Chinese text. The Patriots were once scheduled to compete in Beijing.
I quickly but not convincingly recovered. “No, I am not American, I am Chinese. Nee hao.” I scurried off with my juice into the shadows.
As I delved deeper into the labyrinth, the alley opened up into a large courtyard. A couple of hundred men had gathered in the area. From a distance, I leaned up against the wall and deduced that I was witnessing a wedding party. In this part of the world, the sexes are segregated. The men had formed several large circles and were dancing to the music blasting on the speakers. Culturally required dress includes a large, curved dagger known as a jambiyya. It rests in a wide ornamental belt. The dagger is typically considered to be of ceremonial nature. It is also used frequently in dances at weddings. As the men danced in their circles, they raised their daggers triumphantly above their heads. The climate suddenly changed. A fight broke out amongst the men. I realized this was a combustible situation. An all-male party fueled on amphetamine-like khat where each participant is entrusted with a large dagger. My daringness quickly evaporated and I hurried back to my hotel.
The government of course is not interested in any bad PR. The occasional kidnapping or beheading is not the face Yemen wished to project on the national stage. During my trip, my guide had secured passes issued by the government which allowed me to travel outside of Sanaa. During my brief time outside of Sanaa, we passed through multiple check points. This allowed for the government to track the tourists and prevent them from traveling to more dangerous areas.
During the first hours of my trip, I realized how little time I had to explore this amazing and intriguing land. I had met a traveling, Dutch-American couple who I joined for dinner. After dinner, we strolled the streets and stopped for an after-dinner juice. This was my last and final mistake. Rookie travel mistake 101. The shopkeeper poured me a tall glass of mango juice. What I ignored was the juice had been sitting all day in an earthen jug. My stomach turned like the oceans within moments of leaving the shop. For my final and last 24 hours in Yemen, I lied in my bed in a fetal position, occasionally sipping a coke.
During my brief my trip, I rubbed only the surface of what Yemen offers. I hope one day to return for a longer stay and absorb the land and the people.