Sunday, March 01, 2009

Yemen, to be frank, is something of a mess

It was late on a balmy Thursday afternoon in Sanaa. I was sitting on the top floor of the tourist police headquarters on the edge of the Old City, sat across from Mohammed, a tourist police officer. Mohammed — dressed rather disarmingly in a wife-beater and flares — was not a happy man. “You come to Yemen alone? Your friends?

They not come? They are scared?” I explained to Mohammed that my solo travel was more to do with my friends’ innate laziness rather than a fear of Yemen. This did not satisfy Mohammed. He seemed perplexed by the lack of visitors. “It is safe”, he exclaimed, sweeping a hand across a map of Yemen pinned to the wall. “Everyhere?” I asked. “Well. Not here, and not there”, he quickly added, his hand now sweeping across all of the north and most of the east of the country. “But Sanaa is safe,” I interjected, noting the embarrassed look on his face after he had just written off a large chunk of the country as a no-go zone. “Yes! Yes! He was banging the desk with his hands. “Sanaa safe! But no one comes.” His face quickly darkened. “I don’t understand.” He then strode across the room and offered me a banana.

Part of Mohammed’s problem lies in perception. Yemen is a country that gets a bad rap. If the Gulf were a family, the UAE would be the upwardly mobile older brother, Qatar would be the ambitious younger sibling, Oman would be the beautiful sister, and Yemen; well Yemen would be the dysfunctional black sheep, the miscreant who make inappropriate comments at family gatherings and invites shady friends around at all hours.

Yes, Yemen, to be frank, is something of a mess. Which is a shame really, given it’s so beautiful. Not just run-of-the-mill picturesque, but jaw-droppingly gorgeous. It is, to use a much-abused word, unique. Even Oman, for all its looks has an identical sister in Sinai (which also has better diving), but Yemen has no equivalent anywhere in the world.

The countryside is otherwordly; a mishmash of stark mountain ranges, deep valleys and epic towns built on top of mountains or — in the case of Shibam — built out of mud bricks up to 16-storeys high. Early morning or late afternoon is the best time to travel anywhere outside the capital; in part to avoid the heat, but also to watch the scenery change colour as the sun moves across the sky.

Unfortunately the scenery is part of the problem. Staccato rock formations may look nice in the family photo album but they don’t tend to produce much in the way of arable crops. What they could do is attract tourists. But the tourists are scared off by Al Qaeda and the occasional kidnapping.

Mohammed had specifically warned against traveling to some areas outside of the capital due to this very threat. Although, in Yemen, even the kidnapping is somewhat left of centre. Usually a tribe will want a new road built and petition the government who will promptly ignore them. Said tribe will then kidnap a busload of French tourists and ask the central government again. The central government will have a rather speedy change of heart and agree to build the road whereupon all the hostages are set free. This is not kidnapping. It’s town planning, Yemeni-style. But I was not in Yemen to get kidnapped, I was there to see what the capital had to offer.

And what of Sanaa? Well, Sanaa is unique (yes that word again). Rare is that adjective deserved, but the Yemeni capital is a truly remarkable place. Chocolate-box houses cling to rock-faces, narrow lanes give way to hidden courtyards and intricate wooden front doors lead into family homes; some of which have been lived in for more than a thousand years. The narrow laneways that crisscross the Old City are surprisingly peaceful — give for the odd out-of-control motorbike or qat-chewing motorist.

Yes, it’s impossible to talk about Yemen without mentioning qat, which was classified a ‘drug of a abuse’ by the World Health Organisation in 1980. Try telling that to the ancient Egyptians. They considered the plant a ‘divine food’ and spent a lot of their free time chewing it; possibly to feel closer to God, or maybe because they had nothing better to do. The origins of the plant are unclear with some claiming it was first grown in Ethiopia and brought across to Yemen, while others believe Yemen first grew the plant. Its origins are not really that important; what is important is that large swathes of the region swear by the plant and chew as much of it as they can on a daily basis.

That certainly seems to be the case in Sanaa, where, by mid-afternoon, the whole population seems to be walking around with a bulge in their cheek. The bigger the bulge, the greater the amount of qat being chewed, and the less likely the chewer is a productive member of society.

Qat can apparently cause “excitement, loss of appetite and euphoria”. Wander around Sanaa on a typical afternoon and you will see lots of qat, lots of qat being chewed, but not much euphoria, nor excitement. What you will see are prostrate locals staring idly into space. It explains why many businesses seem to be run by small children, yet to be introduced to qat and so the only ones capable of running the street stalls and carpet shops.

Sanaa itself is quite safe. Well, most of it is. In the 48 hours before I arrived in the capital, shots were fired outside the US embassy and three locals were executed by firing squad. Mohammed had brushed over these incidents back in the Tourist Police Headquarters, deflecting my concerns with a shake of his hand. “It’s fine,” he said. “No problem for you.” And he was right. In all my time in Sanaa, I never felt unsafe — much the opposite. So forget your preconceptions and go explore the city. Head to the Burj Al Salaam Hotel and get the lift (possibly the only one in the Old City) takes you to the seventh floor. Walk up a flight of stairs and you emerge onto the roof terrace, which gives 360 views of the city. Get there for 5.30pm and you will have 45 minutes before the sun disappears below the ridge of mountains that encircle the west of the city. Once night falls, finish your coffee and head back down onto to the streets.

Sanaa at night is wonderful. The dust clears, the streetlights flicker on and the narrow laneways take on an otherworldly feel; shadows arch and fall around corners, the call to prayer echoes around the city -— dozens of minarets creating an eerie wall of sound that bounces off the chocolate box buildings and tree-lined courtyards.

You could of course head outside the Old City, but then you would be in the rather drab and uninspiring new city that features rather drab and uninspiring hotels containing drab and uninspiring expatriates having… well, you get the picture.

Much better is to wander the streets of the Old City. Get lost. Amble through the souqs, peer into private courtyards lit by oil lamps. Catch glimpses of local women giggling in their chadors. Stop for tea and watch small children on tiny bikes try to outrace motorbikes decorated with fake tiger skin. Head to the Bab Al Shams Gate where old and new collide: four-storey mobile phone advertisements loom over spice sellers where the noise is deafening. Wander through the myriad of souqs — everything from chesnuts to cellphones is on sale (I even saw a rather forlorn looking telletubby) and bargain, bargain, bargain.

The locals are as friendly as you will find in the Middle East and haggling with them is a lot of fun. If you want to impress your friends, pick up a jambiya (a ceremonial dagger) which everyone in Yemen wears. But don’t spend all your time shopping; the beauty of Sanaa is its ability to disorientate, charm and beguile, all in the same day. Truly a city like no other.

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