The land of milk and honey
Although recent political upheavals in the country have decimated the tourism business, Yemen remains one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Located below Saudi Arabia at the very bottom of the Arabian Peninsula, the Republic of Yemen is one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, but rich in ways that defy the imagination. Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, is both the fastest growing and oldest city in the world. With awe-inspiring architecture, traditional Islamic culture, breathtaking vistas, and the most generous, friendliest people you will ever meet, Sana’a makes you feel like you’ve stepped back centuries in time. Described in the Bible as the land of milk and honey, the place where wise men gathered frankincense and myrrh, and where Sheba made her home, Yemen today remains one of the most magical, enchanting places on Earth. We took a trip to Sana’a back in 2008 and this is what it was like back then, just 6 years ago…
Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, has a population of 1.7 million and sits 7000 feet above sea level. The Old City section, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a mind-boggling maze of winding alleys and passageways surrounded by the original protective walls that fortified the city against aggressors. And there were many, including the Abyssinians, Persians, and Ottomans. The Old City is so well preserved that you can walk more than a half mile in any direction and not come across a modern building. You’ll see over 14,000 of the distinctive townhouses, stone and mud brick structures usually 6 or 8 stories high, some dating back to 7 AD, all with unique wooden doors and gorgeous stained glass windows. With 50 mosques still standing in the Old City, it’s impossible to escape the ear-shattering call to prayer that emanates from the stately minarets 5 times each day, echoing off the stone buildings and starting as early as 4 AM.
And Sana’a is just the beginning. Only a half hour drive away, you’ll find jaw-dropping sites like the rock palace Dar al-Hajar, which sits atop a mountain and resembles a giant mushroom. It was built as an opulent summer home for ImamYahya and his multiple wives, and has stunning views of the fertile valley below.
Another stop worth making is the town of Shibam in the Haraz Mountains, about an hour southeast of Sana’a. Dating back to 200 AD, Shibam is another UNESCO World Heritage site and is described as the earliest and most perfect example of vertical construction.
Situated on a mountain above Shibam is the fortified citadel of Kawkaban, which served as a safe haven for residents of Shibam during sieges, thanks to its water cisterns and immense grain silos.
About 6 miles north of Shibam is the perfectly camouflaged town of Thula, surrounded by a mammoth stone wall with 7 entry gates. When viewed from below, it’s nearly impossible to detect the town as it blends so well into the mountain.
Since travel outside of Sana’a requires a permit from the authorities, we found the best way to arrange excursions is through the proprietor of the Azal City gift shop, Abdellah Swaid. He will customize the trip to your specs, and his prices are better than what you’ll get through a tour guide company. His shop is located near Taj Talha Hotel near the Dawood Mosque email him at Samcity70@yahoo.com.
Oh, and if you happen to come across a young man named Abbas, you’re in for a treat. Not only is he a charming, funny, smart guy who speaks Italian, French, German, and English, he has a wealth of information about the Old City and is more than happy to share it with you.
The first thing you’ll notice about Yemeni children is that there are so many of them. Yemeni women have on average 6.5 kids, and nearly half the population is under age 15. The other thing you’ll notice is how rugged they are. The streets in the Old City are filled with unattended kids and toddlers who must dodge all forms of cars, bicycles, wheelbarrows, scurrying adults, motorbikes, rocks and sticks wielded by other kids, and even the occasional donkey or camel. Despite being elbowed, pummeled, and even falling flat on their faces, these kids seem impervious to pain. We even saw one having his face twisted in the hand of an older kid, and despite visible fingerprints on his face, never flinched.
They also are masters of improvisation when it comes to toys. The closest thing to conventional toys you’ll see are marbles, which they play avidly using manhole covers as their base. The other popular “toy” is old tires, which they gleefully chase down the narrow alleys, adding to the chaos and adventure of navigating the maze.
But by far the most hair-raising thing we witnessed was children as young as 6 or 7 driving cars (and hitching rides by standing on the rear bumper!). One was driving a Mercedes full of his friends down the winding alleys, with the car barely clearing the narrow lanes. Another was driving a huge truck piled high with sacks of flour 70 mph on a winding road up in the mountains with no guard rails or even a shoulder. Apparently kids learn to drive early because since most women don’t drive, someone needs to drive mom around. Between this and the incredible freedom kids have to move around the walled city unattended, we’re thinking being a kid in Yemen is tough to beat.
No playdates, no schedules, just plain and simple fun! Which probably explains the big smiles you see here. But don’t be mislead – we also saw as the kids get older, they’re probably the hardest working kids you’ll see, helping their parents, minding the shops, pushing wheelbarrows full of goods. Play hard, then work hard.
The sights and sounds you’ll experience in the streets of Sana’a are a constant reminder that you’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. The typical Yemeni man wears a full-length shirtdress belted at the waist, sandals, a headscarf, and a Western-style blazer (which they sell for $5 US near Bab al-Yemen).
But the most surprising part of the outfit is the huge dagger, called a jambiya, that nearly every man wears in the middle of his waist, tucked into his belt. The dagger is a status symbol of sorts, with more affluent Yeminis sporting more expensive, ornate versions.
The other visual that is uniquely Yemeni is the omnipresent bulge in the men’s cheeks, which you’ll see everywhere after noon each day. Although alcohol is illegal in Yemen, it is perfectly legal, and accepted, to chew Quat, a mild narcotic that is chewed in leaf form by virtually every male, and even some females. As they pop leaf after leaf in their mouths and chew, they tuck the whole green mess into one side of the cheek. By 4 in the afternoon, men are walking around with tennis ball size bulges on one side of their faces, bags of Quat are hanging from their dagger handles in their belts, and the entire energy level of the city seems to come down. You’ll see shopkeepers slumped in their stalls, and the buzz and energy you saw in the morning will have diminished considerably. We call it the Quat Effect.
What can be a bit un-nerving is climbing into a cab, most of which have no seatbelts, and realize your driver is high as a kite on Quat. But Quat is an integral part of the Yemeni culture. It is Yemen’s biggest cash crop by far, and even dictates a big part of Yemeni architecture – every home in Yemen has a room, usually on the top floor, that is set aside as a Quat-chewing room. It is called a maffraj (room with a view in Arabic), and is where the men go to enjoy the effects of the Quat and each other’s company.
Tea drinking is another big Yemeni pastime, and you’ll see evidence of it everywhere in the streets. From kids scurrying by with tea in 4-cup holders to stalls selling it from huge cauldrons to merchants offering you a cup, it’s a big part of the social scene here. Whether made with cardamom or mint or laced with sweet condensed milk, it’s delicious and warming, especially on those cold mornings when you’re waiting for the sun to warm things up. (Because Sana’a is so high up, the temperature can go from 40 degrees Celsius at night to 80 during the day in February.)
Another scene you might stumble upon is the twice-weekly donkey market, where men from the countryside come into the Old City to buy donkeys for their farms. The market takes place right in the street and up on the sidewalk, so be mindful of the occasional bucking donkey as you walk by.
If you’re lucky, you could even happen upon a traditional Yemeni wedding, which takes place right out in the middle of the street.
If you show interest, you’ll more than likely be invited to join in. The men party outside with singing and dancing, while the women are secluded in another location. At the end of the night, the bride is presented to the groom. Since 70% of all marriages are still arranged, this is often the first time the bride and groom are seeing each other.
Perhaps the scene that will most make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time is the sight if a blindfolded camel tethered to a giant mortar and pestle, walking around and around in circles, grinding sesame seeds into oil. There is a stall just east of the Bab al-Yemen where you can see one of these camels at work.
Food & Restaurants
You may hear that there are no “proper” restaurants in the Old City, and while that may be true, you can eat very well for very little money if you’re willing to put yourself into the mix, and eat as the locals do. There is an abundance of street food, including fried dough, prickly pears, watermelon, sesame cakes, and dates. But one of the best food experiences is the restaurant Houmald Salta, next to the Quat market in the heart of the Old City.
Salta is a delicious stew with meat, lentils, beans, funugreek, and coriander, and is rumored to make Quat even more effective, so it is the lunch of choice to prime one for the afternoon Quat-chewing session. Just be sure to buy your bread from one of the numerous vendors outside before you head inside to shout your order to the chef.
Then go up the steep stone steps and wait upstairs for the waiter to bring your piping hot salta. Although you’ll see only men in this place, don’t be afraid to go in if you’re a female. They will make you feel completely safe and welcome.
Anther memorable dining experience is the bustling Kebab Square, located across from Ali Baba’s shop in Souk al Milh. Here you’ll find delicious kebabs being grilled and served at communal outdoor tables along with bread and a tomato and coriander salad, and of course, tea.
If you’re feeling adventurous, check out the stand selling the best tasting fish ever. It happens to be located in the crazy Quat Market (Andad Souk) just west of the dry wadi that runs through the Old City. Enjoy watching the wheeling and dealing Quat sellers and buyers, then buy yourself some spicy fish and some mangoes and enjoy. And if you buy Quat, be sure to buy the small bound bundles rather than the loose stuff. Better quality.
Bread is an important staple in the Yemeni diet and there are no fewer than 40 types available. But the most prevalent one is a pita-style flat bread. As you walk through the Old City you will see many bread-making operations taking place in stalls where you can peek in and see bread being shoveled into stone ovens.
You’ll find a few more tasty dining options just outside Bab al-Yemen, including a restaurant that serves deliciously seasoned rotisserie chicken and another that specializes in whole fish grilled to perfection. Just don’t be surprised when your table is set with a few pages from the local newspaper, upon which your food will be placed in lieu of a plate. Oh, and don’t wait for the knife and fork to arrive, because they won’t. After you pick apart your food and eat it with your hands like everyone around you, just get up and walk to the sink in the back and wash your hands. Remember, when in Rome…
The Old City is like one big open market that is almost too much for the senses to process. Colorful (and cheap) pashminas, jambiyas (the daggers the men wear)
traditional gold and silver jewelry made with precious and semi-precious stones, aromatic spices, moist dates, fresh nuts, delicious local honey, brightly colored bolts of fabric, even beautifully bound Korans.
Plus you’ll notice sexy lingerie for sale, which many of the women wear under their long, mostly black robes, which conceal everything except the eyes.
Since these souks (markets) are where the locals shop, you’ll also see everything from hardware and house wares to groceries and sundries.
While prices are negotiable, just be sure to haggle gently, or you risk offending the sellers.
While you will see many Yemeni women out during the day, shopping, doing errands, and walking with her kids, you’ll rarely see them out at night. And you’ll never see them in any of the restaurants or cafes, which cater exclusively to men (and the occasional tourist or ex-pat).
All of the women wear long robes and headscarves. Most are dressed completely in black, but some wear robes that are quite colorful. While you cannot see anything but their eyes, they seem to be taking in everything and will stare unabashedly at you, probably because the sight of a tourist is still something of a novelty here.