Stepping into an Arabian Fairy Tale in Yemen

Stepping into an Arabian Fairy Tale in Yemen

Crowded Street Market - The Old City of Sana'a, Yemen

Crowded Street Market – The Old City of Sana’a, Yemen

“I audibly gasped when I entered the Old City of Sana’a, for it was as if I had just arrived in a town lifted from the pages of an Arabian fairytale. The taxi drove through the twisting roads which lay at the bottom of narrow canyons of towering thin buildings, with facades resembling gingerbread houses decorated with vanilla frosting. Men dressed in loose earthy-coloured clothes with a solid jambiya (dagger) hanging from the front of their belts idled to their destination and children frolicked in the streets, squealing and chasing each other in frivolous games.

The narrowness of the roads prevented the taxi taking me to the door of my hotel, so I collected my backpacks and concluded the last part of my journey by foot. The hotel was a typically narrow building of this area which usually are made from stone, mud-blocks or bricks. Climbing the steep stairs to my lovely corner room with arabesque furniture, wooden shutters that creaked in the wind, carved skylights and whitewashed walls, the room overlooked a communal garden where neighbouring residents would share an open plot of land. I was thankful for the room upgrade, mainly due to me being the only guest.

I immediately plunged into the marvel that is Old Sana’a, and in doing so, stepped back to age many centuries past, men would haggle at the donkey markets at the price of their beasts, camels still being used to grind oils, and the sharp sound of metal marked the work of a blacksmith. The souqs (markets) contained an array of items; everything from spices, grains, through to clothing and oversized brass ornaments. Some shops were small, no more than two metres wide but much deeper, while others were more substantial so one could walk inside. I was gaining a lot of attention from people during my roamings because I seemed to be the only tourist in the city. It took three days before I managed to meet other foreigners.

As is typical with the Middle East, the richest resource is the people. I am unsure what tourism campaign the government has embarked upon, but the most common English expression I heard was “Welcome to Yemen!” This phrase was only surpassed by the word ”Zoora!” (photo). Children and male adults would request a picture and then look with eager anticipation at the images on my camera. The quieter children would pass a coy smile and slink away, while the more boisterous would squeal and laugh. These people never asked for any money for taking their photo, no pens, no food – they just wanted the simple joy of seeing their image. It is these travel experiences that explain why the Middle East is my favourite region in the world.

The hospitality of the city was almost overwhelming, with men both young and old wishing to show me around their city, offer me a coffee, soft drink or food. It reinforced an observation gathered in my travels that the fewer possessions people own, the more generous they tend to be.

A noticeable absence in Sana’a were the women, for the only time one would espy them in any number was near to sunset, when for a brief time, the streets became theirs, as their darkly clad packs swarmed through the markets. Many times women would lower their eyes when I passed them. Still, occasionally some would establish eye contact with me – it is remarkable what beauty can be conveyed in a person’s eyes. I would always smile in acknowledgement, and sometimes, their eyes would briefly sparkle as they smiled in return.

The role of women in this society is very controlled and restricted – as much by societal pressures than any legal regulations. During my visit to Yemen, I only saw a handful of women who wore the hijab, the rest opting to cover their full face with the niqab.

Women were almost always segregated from men, and if an unmarried female was to meet with a member of the opposite sex, it was at their moral peril. Once in a restaurant, a woman with her face uncovered was happily talking to her male friend; however, this dramatically changed when other women entered the room, for she immediately covered her face and left the area.

After a day of exploration, it was nearly sunset, so I returned to my hotel and climbed the steep stairs to the roof to savour this glorious panorama of magical Sana’a. A dozen mosques were located within a few hundred metres, so when the golden rim of the sun slipped slowly beneath the hills, the adhan (call to prayer) issued from a mosque’s loudspeakers. The other mosques followed in quick succession as the darkening city was animated by the pronouncements of prayers praising Allah that echoed off the buildings – a powerful experience. As the minutes passed, the calls gradually lessened, and with the first star appearing in the evening sky, the last minaret fell silent, and a hush descended over the city.”

June 2010

My blogs about Yemen:

Where Tourists Fear to Tread Yemen 1
You Shall Be Named Muhammad Yemen 2