Sometimes, the logistics of travelling take you to unexpected places. I had set my mind on visiting an island way off the beaten path and, to get there, I had to transit through Yemen. I did some research and realized that despite all Western Government’s warnings that travelling to Yemen is suicidal, the capital and the area around it are quite safe for a short touristic visit. Some day, I will write something about travelling to so called dangerous places. In the mean time, here is a brief description of my Saturday in Sana’a, which I spent walking around with an elderly guide, who had just started taking tourists around, after a forced break of nearly two years. Of note, I arrived late Thursday evening but, wanting to be prudent, I avoided going anywhere on Friday and stayed at the hotel, updating the blog and reading. Sure enough, after prayers, there were some protests, although none turned particularly violent.
The Old City of Sana’a has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. As such, any repairs or new buildings must be done in the prevalent style of the area. What is surprising in Old Sana’a is how prevalent the prevalent architectural style really is. In other words, all the buildings are the same! It gives the city a unique and spectacular look, and makes it impossible to find your hotel, as every building looks exactly like your hotel. I had never seen anything quite like that in such a large city.
The traditional windows are one of the most interesting architectural feature. Unfortunately, they are worth quite a bit on the antiques market, and many impoverished residents have not been indifferent to the business opportunity. If they were merely moved to the houses of wealthier Sana’a residents, on the whole nothing would be lost. Unfortunately, the windows, doors and other hardware I saw in the antique dealers’ shops are mostly purchased by diplomats and the odd tourists, and taken out of the country. I’m sure they don’t look out of place at all in Rome or Moscow.
My guide was quite keen on pointing out numerous architectural details I would never have noticed. This house, like many, has animal horns embedded in the facade. This practice predates Islam by many centuries, but has persisted to this day. While the original purpose belongs to a long forgotten religion, they are still installed as a sign of prosperity, good fortune, or something else, I forget.
A most unusual local practice is to dig up archeological sites, take a stone with writing on it, and embed it in your new wall. This wall, just outside Sana’a, can’t be more than 200 years old, but has a stone engraved in a writing similar to modern Ethiopian Amharic. This means it predates the arrival of Islam in Yemen, in the 7th Century. I don’t know what to call it: Preservation? Looting? Recycling?
And my final picture of strange architectural details, this door. If you zoom in on the brownish piece of wood above the door, just below the arch, you will see two Stars of David. One could easily think this house belonged to a Jew, but this is the wrong neighbourhood. Different communities may have lived peacefully at a time in Yemen, but they lived in distinct neighbourhoods. Today, the Turkish Neighbourhood and the Old Jewish Quarter look just like any other part of Old Sana’a, unless you really know what to look for. The original communities almost completely disappeared with the fall of the Ottoman Empire (after World War I) and the creation of the State of Israel (after World War II). So, back to the Stars of David. According to my guide, someone involved in the construction project was Jewish, probably the builder or the architect, and had them included. “The Jews were smart”, concluded my old guide!
Old Sana’a used to have many beautiful courtyards covered with small gardens, where residents would grow herbs and vegetables. The courtyards are still there, but unfortunately, most of them are just patches of dirt. This situation has little to do with political events, but rather with a chronic shortage of water in the area. All houses have water meters, and the high rates mean that growing your own vegetables in Sana’a has become more expensive than buying ones imported from other parts of the country.
Busy market on a late Saturday morning. This is the women’s clothes area, where I had two surprises. The first was that only men worked in women’s clothes stores, and the second was that, just as in slightly less conservative parts of the Middle-East, women certainly wear very different clothes indoors and outdoors. All wear a black abaya outside, but the clothes for sale looked just like what Western women would wear to go to a cocktail party. Some looked like what women in the West would wear to go to work, on a street corner! The old Sana’a markets are pretty impressive and you can buy everything there: salt, spices, generators, cashews, spatulas, spare parts for your AK-47 and, until 1962, slaves. That’s right, no typo, one-nine-six-two. No so bad for the region, I think Saudi Arabia officially abolished slavery in the late sixties (I don’t think it changed much in practice).
I visited all the main commercial areas, but only took a few discreet pictures. All of my research suggested my Yemen itinerary was completely safe, but I still wanted to keep a low profile, which is why my pictures are mostly in quiet areas. I have to say I attracted zero attention anywhere in Sana’a (except the mosque). While I obviously fall in the category “caucasian”, I’m not white like a Scotsman. I would say 1 or 2% of Yemeni men have my skin tone. In fashion and advertisement, closer to 45%, while another 45% are lighter and blue-eyed; hilarious! All that to say that if you saw me with my guide, you could think I was an extremely light skinned Arab, or maybe a Turk, or you could think I’m a tourist. Given the number of tourists currently in Yemen, the first possibility is much more likely, and nobody even looked at me twice, unless my guide was talking to me (in English).
I was glad we walked around the Old City; driving looked painful. The impact on pedestrians is the same as in the rest of the Middle-East: Arabs everywhere believe the horn makes a car go faster!
Like many Arab capitals, Sana’a has a Tahrir Square. After the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt began, former Yemeni President Saleh preempted any possible occupation of Sana’a Tahrir Square by potential opponents by having his supporters occupy it first, before real protests had even begun! The tents and other temporary structures are still there today. My guide speculated the supporters may still be waiting for payment for their support and thus holding out on the dismantlement.
Just a few years ago, a massive new mosque was completed in Sana’a. You can easily see it and its seven minarets in this skyline picture, taken from a rooftop hotel.
Like when visiting the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, I was impressed, but left wondering if such opulence was required in a country facing so many basic needs and shortages (much more so than Morocco). But, who am I to judge? This is a decision for the Yemeni taxpayers and electors. […] That was a joke; it was a decision for the President, who had been in power since 1978.
I always feel awkward in any religious building still visited by modern followers. This mosque was no exception. I asked my guide where the Imam would preach from and we went there. I thought he was talking a little loud, given that a man was sitting on the floor right next to us, praying I guess. But then, the praying man’s cell phone rang and he pick-up, leaving me both amused and indifferent.
As I was admiring the details of one of the many vaulted ceilings, my guide said something and I had a quick return to reality.
– “You see that guy with the white beard?” I saw a big guy with such a beard, with a few people around, making him look important.
– “Yes”, I said.
– “He spent 2 or 3 years in Guantanamo, accused of giving millions to Al-Qaeda”.
Having traveled quite a bit, often off the beaten path, I can sometimes get a little blasé and everything just feels totally normal to me. Not then; this was very much a “you’re not in Kansas anymore” reminder. Needless to say, I did not take any pictures!
At the end of the day, I went out for dinner, invited by the general manager of the agency my guide worked for. Being among the very few tourists starting to return to Sana’a after an interruption of nearly 2 years, I guess I was a bit of an honoured guest. The tourism situation is really quite sad nowadays. Last year it was unfortunate, but normal and understandable, that tourists were nowhere to be seen. Now, there is no reasonable reason not to visit Sana’a, but revolutions kill tourism in a day, while stability restores it in a couple of years.
We went to a traditional restaurant where tourist groups used to go in the old days. Because the restaurant is good and not a tourist trap, it has survived well on the local clientele’s business, just becoming a little less busy. Being with a long-term important client, I was allowed in the kitchen and snapped a few shots of the gigantic bowl-shaped ovens. These are very traditional, the only concession to modernity being the replacement of wood with gas. Bread is prepared a bit like one spins a pizza dough, and is then thrown violently on the interior side, where it sticks and cooks. Using a long instrument, fish is lowered and picked up from the bottom.
The manager, holding the gigantic flatbread we shared with some vegetable dishes and minced meat. It was delicious, and the bread was so much better than Ethiopian injera. I had perhaps six complete meals in Sana’a (excluding breakfast), and I must say I was very impressed. Simple but beautifully seasoned dishes, and sharing meals using pieces of bread to pick-up the food is so much fun.
Postscript: a week later I went back to Sana’a and did meet 4 other tourists. Still, not quite Vegas yet!
Postscript 2: a week later 3 Europeans were kidnapped right where I took picture #9, but they were released 4 months later, unharmed, as is usually the case in Yemen.