Two days before I was due to depart, the British embassy issued the following warning on their website "In light of the increasing violence in Yemen, we advise against all travel to Yemen...Political demonstrations are continuing across Yemen...There have been reports of a number of deaths during demonstrations in Aden, Ta'izz and Sana'a. Further protests are expected and violence is likely...be particularly vigilant...If in any doubt remain indoors."
But I had business in Yemen - don't ask - and besides, as a youngster I collected stamps and those from Yemen were always the prettiest. With luck, I'd not only escape the riots, I might even see some of the sights.
My Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi took off from Cape Town International on Sunday 13th March at 08h30. (The food, the service, everything was absolutely fantastic! And, in case you're wondering, I paid for my own ticket.) The long wait at Abu Dhabi airport for my onward Yemenair flight (more about that anon) was long, most of it spent reading or trying to sleep in a very uncomfortable airport chair.
|Ali Abdullah Saleh Mosque in Sana'a|
Come boarding time for my flight to Aden (remember those purple and olive stamps with Arab dhows?), a large number of black-clad ladies in burqas were shuttled off to one side to be searched separately and then ushered on to the plane first. By the time I got on the plane and looked for my window seat at 6F, it was taken. The air hostess asked if there was a problem. I showed her my boarding pass. "Yes, but you see there's someone sitting there already, so just sit on the aisle." So I sat on the aisle, squashed next to two very large burqa ladies. To ease matters, I tried some polite conversation, but got absolutely no response. Since I was only able to see their eyes, I couldn't even tell if they were smiling at me when I spoke.
But they had my undivided attention when lunch came around and I observed how difficult it is for them to eat with their faces covered. I thought they'd remove the flap over the mouth, but no, they just lifted it up each time they wanted to put food down the hatch. The meal was a beef curry with peas, carrots and rice, so picture all of this being mushed together and picked up with the right hand and then fed under the black flap. By the time they'd finished, there was food scattered all over the place. Which only partly explains why, if given a choice, I would never again fly Yemenair. Yemenis litter everywhere. It's like flying in a garbage truck with a garbage crew.
On landing at Aden some passengers disembarked; new ones took their time coming aboard. At last the plane took off for Sana'a, but halfway there I felt the plane doing a complete turnaround. The pilot announced that we were returning to Aden because of bad weather in Sana'a. Ten minutes later we did another U-turn and the pilot announced we were on our way to Sana'a after all. We landed in the middle of a dust storm, at about 22h00. Was I grateful that my UK-based brother was there to meet me!
|Raisin and date stall at the Suq in Sana'a|
My first ride was in a dhabab - looks very much like our own people-carrier taxis; only difference is the interior is all spruced up with colourful carpeting and tassels and the sliding side door is non-existent. The drivers must have nerves of steel as there are no road signs or traffic lights, and almost no road markings. There is however one very important rule of the road and that is that if you are planning to overtake or push in, or cross an intersection, you have to hoot as long and loud as you can.
At 04h30 I was woken to the droning sound of an Imam chanting over a loudspeaker. It went on for about 15 minutes by which time I was so wide awake it was impossible to get back to sleep. That's how I awoke every day of my stay.
|Rock Palace - last residence of the Imam|
The first thing that had to be done was to report our presence to the Tourist Police in Sana'a and to inform them when we'd be leaving. There I was interviewed, or should I rather say interrogated, to make sure that I wasn't a journalist. I was given the necessary documentation allowing me to be in Sana'a and granting me permission to travel to Ta'izz in the south.
Sana'a is the capital of Yemen and, at an altitude of 2,300 metres above sea level, it is one of the highest capital cities of the world. Wikipedia reports that the city dates back to the Sabaean dynasty 6th Century BC. On a visit to the National Museum on Tahrir Square I got to see a statue found in Al Bayda, Bronze Man, dating back to that time.
|Bronze statue circa 6th century BC found in Al Bayda|
I hadn't finished my tour of the museum when the guide started urging us to get a move on - this despite having been told that the museum was open for another hour. When we walked out on to the street we were surrounded by deafening noise. People shouting and police cars driving by with sirens blaring. Not even hesitating I raised my camera to take some pictures, but I'd hardly clicked the shutter when people all around were shaking their heads, shouting and gesturing no, no, no with a finger slicing across the neck. I learned in Yemen it's forbidden to take photographs of military personnel, police or women. And there were plenty of government vehicles with soldiers and suits flying by.
So we decided to take a taxi to the next tourist stop. Eventually one stopped and as we were travelling along my dear, sweet brother decided to ask the driver where we could buy booze. The driver didn't speak much English (mafi Inglise) he just shook his finger and pulled out a card - we thought he was going to give us a business card, or an address of where to go, but no, not at all - it was his police identification card. He turned out to be an undercover cop driving the taxi. (Alcohol is a strict no-no in Yemen - except at five-star hotels at R85 a beer.)
I reckon he was sent to look for us, because when we got back to the hotel that night the front desk man told us that he had a message from the Tourist Police to say that we must be very careful as we were the only tourists left in Sana'a.
We walked along the walls of the old city and entered the Suq (market) through Bab al-Yemen (Gate of Yemen) where we were greeted with the sounds, smells and colours of the market place. Pictures don't do it justice; the place was buzzing and there was such vibrant feel to it. Shopkeepers all trying to grab us and get us to buy from them - bargaining down to the lowest price just to get the sale. The Yemeni people are generally poor, but rich in character and enthusiasm. They might not speak English, but everyone is always calling out "welcome" as you pass by.
|Sheer cheek: qat-chewing taxi driver|
Every day, just after midday prayers, the whole country comes to a standstill as the men close up their shops and rush off to buy their plastic bag of qat. Then, for the next couple of hours, you see men sitting on the side of the road chewing the cud and chatting to friends. It is not unusual to see men walking in pairs holding hands as they stroll around chewing qat. They shove the leaves in on one side and their cheek gets bigger and bigger. When you talk to them all you see is green gunge moving around over really brown rotten teeth. And when they decide to spit the glob out, they do so anywhere - only so that they can start piling it in all over again. This qat-chewing goes on until late into the evening. And the following morning when the mouths are empty, you see the rotten teeth when they smile. Yemenis are very happy people, at least the guys are, they're always smiling and are forever shouting "Sora, sora" when they see you with a camera. They love having their photo taken. (And then placing greasy fingerprints all over the LCD camera display as they laugh and point at themselves in the picture!)
On the 18th March, 52 people were killed by government forces and over 200 were injured when unarmed demonstrators were fired at on Sana'a University Square. Then, on the 20th March, just the day before president Ali Abdullah Saleh's 65th birthday, the president fired his entire cabinet and warned that any attempt to overthrow him would result in civil war. It was time to leave Sana'a.
For the long trip from Sana'a to Ta'izz the bus driver gave everyone a bottle of water (you can only drink bottled water in Yemen), a packet of ginger biscuits and a very thin plastic bag. The bag? I didn't have long to wait to find out what that was for: the road was long, windy and full of hairpin bends and potholes. Soon the sound of retching could be heard. At the first rest stop, the see-through bags were tied up and tossed out. This was littering taken to horrific extremes! Everywhere the otherwise-beautiful landscape was littered with bags of pink, blue and white.
Tai'zz is full of lovely old houses, all built with brown bricks; only the mosques are white. It has its own market specialities: old Jewish silver, dried salted fish and a smoked cheese made from a mixture of camel and goat's milk.
|al-Ashrafiyyah mosque in Ta'izz|
We visited three very old mosques, al-Ashrafiyyah built in 1377 by al-Ashrafa and containing the tombs of his wife, father and sons; al-Mu'tabiyya built by al-Ashrafa in 1392 to be used by the women for prayer; and Modhafer which is the oldest mosque in Ta'izz and was built by al-Ashrafa's great grandfather.
It was a day to visit historical sights and the next was Al-Qaherah Castle.
It's an impressive historical landmark set on the northern slopes of Jabel Saber mountain. The original castle was erected in the reign of the Ottomans who gained control over Yemen in the 15th century. At the moment renovations are being done using the original building techniques and river stones.
|Cisterns of Tawila in Aden|
From Tai'zz on to the port of Aden: luckily no winding mountain roads, so not so many pukers on this trip. Aden is a natural harbour in the crater of an extinct volcano. It was under British rule from 1839 to 1967 and the British influence is evident in the buildings and the structure of the city.
Our first stop was to see the Cisterns of Tawila or the Tawila Tanks. There were originally 53 of them, built by the Himyarites to collect and store rainwater flowing down through the Wadi Tawila, but the Brits renovated the area in the 19th Century and now only 13 tanks remain. Quite spectacular, but no water anywhere. In fact the weather was so hot that the rest of the day was spent lazing on a private beach belonging to the Sheraton Gold Mohur hotel where, basking under the palm trees, it was easy to forget all about the soldiers and police patrolling the streets outside.
A day later it was back to calm, sweet, sunny South Africa. On a mission to Yemen to buy dates? Remember to give yourself an extra day or three to look around. Or just thinking of taking a holiday with a difference? Why not try Yemen?
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