After the dreadful atrocities of September 11 2002 it was with some trepidation that I arrived in the Yemen in December of that year to join my husband who was working for a Yemeni/UK company as a contractor for an American Oil Company. My husband had told me he would meet me at Sana’a airport and that one of his Yemeni employees would be at the arrival gate to assist me in getting through immigration. I was very nervous when I stepped off the plane as there were queues of people waiting to get through immigration, mostly Yemenis or Ethiopians. I stood looking very lost as I could see no-one there to meet me. Suddenly a man in military uniform carrying a large rifle beckoned to me saying gruffly “passport”. I handed him my passport and entry visa whereupon he handed it to a man who just took it away. I was aghast. Where was my passport going? What the hell was going on? He then proceeded to grab my arm and growled “come with me now”. Bloody hell I thought, I am being arrested. Where was my husband? The crowds of Yemenis and Ethiopians waiting to get through immigration were staring at me as I was hustled past them, through the gates and down a corridor. At the end of the corridor we rounded a corner and there was my husband and some of his staff all laughing. I turned to the military man who was also laughing. They had all played a joke on me. I found out later he was head of immigration and my husband had told him to pretend I was being arrested. The Yemenis (I found out many times) have a wonderful sense of humour. Once I had calmed down I also saw the funny side of it.
Throughout my time in Sana’a I can only say that the Yemeni people are one of the most friendly and hospitable race I have ever come across. It is a poor country and many of the people live in poverty but their attitude to westerners and ex pats can only be described as welcoming. Obviously the ex pats working here have brought money into the cities but it is a great shame that because of the problems of terrorists in the world and because of the minority of Yemenis who still continue to kidnap some of the westerners, this beautiful country cannot be put onto the tourist map. In some parts of Sana’a I felt as if I was stepping back in time but in others it is very modern. Some of the hotels are very beautiful and there are also large modern shopping areas as well as small older style shops selling just about everything you could imagine.
The old walled city of Sana’a, which legend has it was built by Noah’s son, Shem and known as Bab al-Yemen is in the middle of this bustling city. The buildings within this walled city are the most amazing pieces of architecture I have ever seen. Most of the houses are still original, all of which are intricately decorated externally with different coloured stone. Once inside the city walls the cobbled alleyways remind me of a maze and every street houses little shops selling spices, brilliantly coloured cloths, rugs, brass and jewellery. It is a bustling thriving community. It is really a giant suq (market) and is a centre for handicraft industries such as jewellery, silver work, leatherwork and stone polishing as well as other interesting crafts from India and Japan. The Arabian dagger (jambia) is also made here and adorn the walls of the shops with their intricate designs. Sana’a and especially Bal al-Yemen has now been given World Heritage status to protect it from redevelopment.
Because of security I was not allowed out of the complex on my own and was told that I could not leave Sana’a but one day I went with one of my husband’s Yemeni guards to the village of Suq-al-Wadi which was 11 kilometers from Sana’a where there is a famous rock palace. I dressed in the typical Yemeni costume of the long black abaya and would not have missed this trip for the world. The rock palace was built in 1786 by King Imam as a summer residence and is built on a huge rock. It is now open to the general public where guides speaking excellent English give tours and usually every Friday (the Islamic weekend) weddings are performed and local people join in the tribal dances.
When I wanted to visit the shops in Sana’a a guard had to accompany me. The dress code for women is very important. Women in the Yemen are covered from head to toe showing only their eyes. Western women do not have to go to that extreme but it is important to dress in a way where no curves of the body are shown. By dressing in this fashion it makes it easier to go about your business with confidence. The dress code for men was a little daunting when first I went shopping as most of them are in traditional dress with the proverbial jambia strapped to their waist. No guns are allowed in Sana’a other than nominated guards for the ex pats and, of course, the military. Outside the city in the villages guns and automatic weapons are readily available and there was the odd occasion when I could hear large gun battles between different villages and tribes usually over who owns a specific piece of land.
There is, I believe, a problem in Yemen however and that is the chewing of Qat (pronounced Gat). This is a leaf, very similar to privet, which is grown in huge quantities and sold every afternoon in practically every street in Sana’a. This is a powerful narcotic and once chewed, I have been told you are hooked for life. Approximately 80% of the male population in Yemen chews Qat and a large part of their wages are spent on buying it. Every afternoon when the Qat is picked fresh and brought to Sana’a a huge mass of men stand around every street corner buying it and chewing it together. Apparently I was told it makes them relaxed and takes the stresses of the day away but for those few hours it stops all production of work within the community and loses more man power every day than one can imagine.
Yemen, however, is still a wonderful and interesting country with a culture that goes back centuries. It is a great pity more people cannot go to the Yemen and see the history and heritage. Usually everywhere in the world progress pulls down the old buildings replacing them with modern, and very often, ugly monstrosities but in Sana’a the history and heritage is still prevalent and I only hope it will continue to stay so that one day more people will be able to go and see for themselves, just as I have done, the wonderful architecture of times gone by. I count myself lucky that I have seen it for myself and that I was there, in Sana’a a part of it for a little while.