Written by fallschirmhosen on 14 Jan, 2008
In general, the people in Sana'a, and Yemen, are extremely friendly, helpful, and are curious to learn more about you as you want to learn more about them. Like in any city, though, you have to aware of some potential scams that do occur.On…Read More
In general, the people in Sana'a, and Yemen, are extremely friendly, helpful, and are curious to learn more about you as you want to learn more about them. Like in any city, though, you have to aware of some potential scams that do occur.On my second-to-last day, as I sat in the main square (Bab al-Yaman) of Old Sana'a, a Yemeni man dressed in Western clothes approached me. Prior to this, a few other Yemeni men dressed in Western clothes also approached me, but they were just tour guides looking for business. This new man was not. He was simply talking to me about Yemen, and how he had also traveled to other countries. I generally do not talk to strangers who approach me, but this guy seemed to be genuine...especially since he said he was not a strict Muslim like everyone else in the country.A few minutes later, though, a man who looked like Lionel Ritchie with terrible teeth approached us, began yelling at the man who was talking to me, and eventually made the man walk away, cursing under his breath. This new man, Lionel Ritchie, then told me to not speak to that other man because he causes problems with tourists, and that I should do whatever I want. So, I walked away.However, a few minutes later Lionel Ritchie found me, and started to talk. He asked where I was going, and so I simply said I was going to find lunch at a place recommended in my book. He then said he'd show me the way. However, as we started walking, he said he had to go pray at the mosque, and that I should wait for him outside while I held onto his jacket...his insurance so he knew I would not leave. I refused to hold his jacket, and hoped he'd go inside to pray while I walked away. But, he then decided not to pray, and he stayed with me.He took me to the restaurant I had wanted to eat at, said something to the owner, and then we sat down. Without seeing a menu or being asked what I wanted to eat, food started coming to the table. I asked what it was, and apparently the name of the dish was, "This is good food." As we ate, Lionel then began his prepared spiel about how he needs money for his baby, and that he wanted me to buy milk for the baby (which, for some reason, cost about $20). At this point I knew he was just trying to get money from me.When it came time to leave, I was expecting to pay less than two dollars, as that is what my guidebook said it costs. Instead, my meal was the equivalent of $7.50. I asked why this was so expensive, and my buddy Lionel claimed it was "the tourist price." I told him to tell the restaurant owner I refused to pay unless he lowered the price. The owner brought the price down a bit. It was still nowhere near $2, so I had Lionel pay everything he had (just $1), and then I paid about $5. Based on the mannerisms of Lionel and the owner, they looked like they were working together.After all that, apparently $6 for a $1.50 meal was still not enough money. Lionel then said I owed another lady $1 for the bread used in the meal. I told him I had paid enough, and told him to tell her that. As we argued back and forth for a few moments, Lionel turned his back to speak to the lady. As soon as he did this I took off down the maze of streets.I escaped Lionel that day, but did see him from a distance the next day. Again, I took off hoping he would not follow. Later that day I also bumped into the friendly man I had talked to before Lionel chased him off. Again, he was really friendly and seemed a genuinely nice man. Lionel was not. Close
I feel very comfortable saying that, in general, kidnappings in Yemen are a thing of the past. There are still areas that are closed off to tourists, and some areas that are of higher risk that others. But, in general, Yemen feels like…Read More
I feel very comfortable saying that, in general, kidnappings in Yemen are a thing of the past. There are still areas that are closed off to tourists, and some areas that are of higher risk that others. But, in general, Yemen feels like a very safe place to visit.Six months prior to my visit was an Al Qaeda attack at the tourist site in Marib that killed several tourists from Spain. Though this was still a hot topic on the minds of the people I spoke to, they all say it as a shameful act and hoped that tourists would realize Yemen is not a dangerous place. I likened it to the image the Bronx has. When people here the name "Bronx," they automatically think it means it is a bad place. But, I live there and have never had any problems.Before my visit, I had also read that tour groups travel in convoys and are guarded with armed guards and vehicles. Not once did I have a guard with me, nor travel in a convoy, nor have an armed vehicle escort me. To me, if I did travel with armed guards, it would only draw attention. I traveled throughout Yemen in a 4x4 vehicle, with just a driver and guide (sometimes just a driver). There were several police checkpoints we had to pass through, but none of them gave us any problems when we told them I was an American (or Canadian in some places).One image of Yemen that was burned into my mind before going was that everyone carried a gun. This is not true anymore. Recent laws passed within the country forbid people to bear arms in public (I believe it was enacted so tourists would be less scared). So, on my arrival I was quite shocked to see no one carrying a gun. I think throughout my trip I saw less than five men carrying guns.So, in short, Yemen is a safe place to visit. Not once did I feel threatened or that I was in any danger. Tour companies take the necessary precautions to make sure you have a safe and pleasant trip. And, even without a tour company, the people of Yemen put you at-ease and make you feel welcome. Close
For the Yemeni people who can speak English, there is one term you will come to hate: "As you like." Yemenis use this all the time, and in most cases it does not really mean what it is supposed to mean. A few…Read More
For the Yemeni people who can speak English, there is one term you will come to hate: "As you like." Yemenis use this all the time, and in most cases it does not really mean what it is supposed to mean. A few examples:When hiking in the Haraz Mountains, if you ask a guide how much he/she charges for their services, they will often say, "As you like." You and I will interpret this as meaning we could give them whatever amount we want to give them, whatever amount they deserve. However, what it really means is they have a set rate of $20 per day, and you can give them anything in addition to that...as you like.Another example, when hiking, is when the guide asks where you would like to hike, or which type of terrain you want to hike on. They will say, "We can hike over the mountain, or on the flat roads around the mountain...as you like." No matter what you say, though, they will go the way they want to go...which is usually over the mountain or exactly opposite of what you say.When bartering with a souvenir salesman, they will often say, "I will sell this to you for your price, as you like. Tell me your price." No matter what price you tell them, they will not sell it to you for that price. So, the price is not as we like.At restaurants, your guide may tell you that you can have anything you want.....as you like. So, in my case I asked for fruit, which apparently they did not have. So, instead I ordered some beans. They waiter brought me beans, AND fruit...and charged me for both.So, what I learned from all this is to be firm and insist to get what you want. Close
If there was one theme that could summarize my stay on the island of Socotra, it would have to be getting sick. Despite having an amazing visit to Socotra, as anyone would, the three and one-half days spent there were punctuated by people getting…Read More
If there was one theme that could summarize my stay on the island of Socotra, it would have to be getting sick. Despite having an amazing visit to Socotra, as anyone would, the three and one-half days spent there were punctuated by people getting sick, including myself. So, I am writing this to give you a glimpse as to how easy you can get sick here. It shouldn't scare you, though, as long as you use some common sense and take precautions.Upon my arrival, my guide told me that he was tired and feeling a bit ill. So, the first two days of my trip he spent quite a good amount of time resting and sleeping, hoping it would help cure him. But, by the morning of my third day, he was too ill to be my guide. So, as we drove through Hadibu to go to Dihamri, my driver and I dropped him off at the local hospital. I did not see him again until the next day, when he informed me that he had typhoid. Luckily, I had a typhoid vaccine, so I was safe.On my second day on Socotra I, too, felt ill. But, I knew exactly why. On the first day, when in the village of Qalansiyah, I had drank the "local drink." I never knew the name, but I knew it contained mango, milk, and ice blended together. It was basically a smoothie, and the ice is what got me sick. The ice used local "tap" water, which was not safe for me to drink. Had I used a little common sense and not drank the drink with 'tap" water, I could have been spared the 24 hours of nausea, stomach pains, and lightheadedness that followed.The first day of my trip on Socotra, my guide and driver invited one of their friends to come with us. I never knew his name, and he knew no English. But, he was friendly, and actually owned the same cell phone as me. Anyway, on the morning of day two, someone phoned him to say his mother was sick. He immediately took a local taxi back from Qalansiyah to his home. Later in the trip, we learned that she was taken to the hospital (where my guide had gone to b diagnosed with typhoid), and that she had fallen into a coma.With people getting sick left-and-right, I kind of felt like it would be good to leave the island (even though I really did not want to leave). As I waited to board my flight out of Socotra, an ambulance pulled up to the airplane and loaded someone onto the plane. So, again, someone was sick. They loaded the person into the back of the plane, and then everyone else boarded. In Al-Mukalla, the plane de-boarded from the back of the plane. As I got closer, I saw the sick person; a woman who appeared to be sleeping across one row of seats. I then noticed someone looking at me. It was my guide's friend whose mother had fallen into a coma, and it was her mother in the coma on the plane. I said a few words to him, which I do not know if he understood, and gave him my prayers. Most people on Socotra are very poor, and may never leave that island. So, I can only wonder if my guide's friend and his mother had made their first plane ride and trip to the mainland on that day, unfortunately under bad circumstances.Luckily, I did not get sick for the remainder of my trip after visiting Socotra. Close
Written by HELEN001 on 01 Dec, 2006
Bit of a strange place Tarim. Like Sayun, 40km back down the wadi, there’s also a fair bit of money knocking round in Tarim. Not quite as many contemporary, no-more-than-two-storey, ’luxury’ style houses or gleaming 4WDs as Sayun but enough to suggest a higher than…Read More
Bit of a strange place Tarim. Like Sayun, 40km back down the wadi, there’s also a fair bit of money knocking round in Tarim. Not quite as many contemporary, no-more-than-two-storey, ’luxury’ style houses or gleaming 4WDs as Sayun but enough to suggest a higher than national average disposable income. OK, so it’s only a small proportion of the population in this income bracket and the vast majority are as poor as mosque mice but if there were beggars in Wadi Hadramawt, I didn’t see any. That’s more than can be said for the rest of Yemen. Inequitable maybe but at least there seemed to be some sort of trickle-down effect from the local pockets of wealth in the area.
The attraction of Tarim, however, isn’t the relative lack of poverty or plastic wafting in the breeze but the derelict buildings in the town centre which frankly, are amongst some of the most astonishing palaces ever built anywhere. Between the mid 19th century and early 20th century, there was a bit of a trading boom between the Hadramis and the countries of South Asia, South East Asia and East Africa. The upshot of this was that a whole bunch of Hadramis who’d migrated east as either religious scholars and academics or labourers ended up with shed loads of money to send or spend back home in the wadi. Hence the palaces. Astonishing for two reasons - firstly because they’re built out of mud bricks and secondly because there are no words to describe the architectural style resulting from the fusion of Neoclassicism, Rococo, Art Nouveau, Mogul and Art Deco that you’re confronted with.
Now when I arrived in Tarim I discovered that the camera issues I’d had for a short while in Ma’rib had returned big-style so consequently I’m relying on my memory here. But I don’t think my lack of photos of the palaces in Tarim is a bad thing at all. Turning up somewhere with minimal information of questionable reliability and without having seen any pictures is about as close to being an intrepid adventurer as you going to get these days. If you really can’t cope with being a latter day Freya Stark then try www.yemenweb.com for photos and www.idontlikesurprises.com for therapy. Anyway back to the palaces, the majority of which were built in the early 20th century by families who had not only acquired mega-bucks overseas but also a passion for architectural eclecticism. What I find curious is the fact that despite the strong trading links being with the East, the predominant architectural style of the palaces I saw seemed to be European. Italianate balustrades, sweeping stairways, grand salons and internal Rococo plaster work all finely executed out of mud bricks - and all slowly crumbling to pieces.
During the civil war in the 1970s Wadi Hadramawt was in the Marxist Peoples Democratic Republic of South Yemen so one person having one big palace would have been a ‘first up against the whitewashed wall and shot‘ offence however, the palace owners had seen the writing on the wall well in advance and had legged it out of the country. The Marxist Government appropriated the abandoned palaces and they were used and maintained as homes for the poor. Upon the unification of Yemen in 1992 the palaces were returned to their owners who responded with a spontaneous round of indifference to the idea of returning to the family pile. The few who have returned are far more interested in low maintenance homes built of modern materials with good plumbing and enough parking space for a fleet of 4WDs. And who can blame them? I mean, it’s all very well getting dewy-eyed and romantic at the thought of living in a mud palace but would you really want to live somewhere where you’ve got to go out and rebuild the roof every time it rains? No, I didn’t think so and neither do the owners who obviously don’t view their architectural heritage with quite as much sentimentality as we do.
However, amidst all this grandiose decay, there is one palace that’s in slightly better nick than most due to the efforts of a restoration fund founded by a small bunch of possibly French and maybe deceased benefactors. Maybe French because the hand-written information sheet stuck up in the entrance hall appeared to be in French, and maybe deceased because it looked like it had been written considerably more than a lifetime ago - it was so faded and crumbly. If the benefactors are indeed all deceased this would certainly explain why the small amount of restoration work that had been done in the past was beginning to look like it could do with a bit of restoration work itself now. Known as al-Qaf Palace, it was built for Sayyid ’Umar bin Shaykh al-Qaf who allegedly used a book of architectural style templates to come up with mix-and-match design for his palace in a style that one guidebook called ‘Javanese Baroque’. I could see the Baroque but the Javanese escaped me I’m afraid. The Art Deco bathroom with its few remaining panes of the stained-glass windows must’ve been something else to see - once. Most of the rooms are empty and on the upper floors many are a mess of fallen ceilings and broken windows. On the first floor the rooms are in a reasonable state of preservation with a few dusty relics dotted around and it’s not hard to imagine the former grandeur of the palace when you stand in the one room that still has intact stained-glass windows with intricate lattice work.
It was on the palace roof terrace that I met my ’trip weirdo’. There’s always one when you’re away travelling - sometimes a local but usually a tourist and in this case a Frenchman who was something in IT back in the real world. Now I thought the al-Qaf was good value for 150YR (£0.42, US$0.82) but not this guy - he pissed and moaned about how he’d been ‘reeeped off’ and kept banging on about how dusty the palace was. Frankly I’d seen more dust in some of my hotel rooms but I guess his budget for accommodation was higher than mine while his budget for entrance fees considerably lower. This wasn’t a snap judgement either - I’d already clocked him back in Ma’rib where he’d been whinging to the malevolent hobbit about having to pay 100YR to look at Mahram Bilqis. If I’d been the hobbit I certainly wouldn’t have given him the old ‘human leg bone in the cemetery’ routine - no siree! Anyway, I nodded occasionally in a non-committal sort of way and decided to see if I could count all 365 mosques in Tarim as he started to give me the benefit of his wisdom on all things Yemeni. I was up to my 34th mosque-type building when I realised he’d actually stopped to ask me a question."Eeet is nervous eeer, nes’t pas?""Sorry…er…how d’you mean…er …’nervous’, porquoi?"Le terrorisme", he whispered then paused, "…et bin Laden.""Bin Laden?…..as in Osama? …..and al-Qaeda?" He raised his pointy finger to his lips and ‘shushed’ me."Hadramawt….eee was living eeer and now eeet is many with le terrorisme so eeet is nervous, oui?"I know it was unforgivable of me but I told him I was far more terrified at the prospect of having to listen to him ever again, not just in Yemen but in my life, than I was at the thought of Mr bin Laden giving me grief. No, I didn’t happen to agree that just because Osamas’ dad was originally from this neck of the woods it meant that every Hadrami was a paid-up member of al-Qaeda. Muhammed Awad bin Laden left Hadramawt around 1910 and went to work in Saudi where he got mega-rich and built a business empire and good for him. And yes, I did happen to know that the bin Laden Construction Company that’s got the contract to develop the infrastructure in Hadramawt is part of Osamas’ dads empire and so what? Just because one of your 55 kids has gone off the rails doesn’t mean you can’t have a life. So I’m sorry but I couldn’t take any more - it was rude and horrible but the Frenchman had to go. He left. I never finished counting the mosques but I was well impressed with the minaret on the al-Muhdar Mosque which is either the tallest in Hadramawt or Yemen and is either 40m or 50m high depending on who you’re talking to. If you fancy a soft drink in unusual surroundings then try the stall in the grounds of the al-Qubba Rest House just outside town. The rest house was closed for business but if staying there is as bizarre as the building and the unusual gardens then I’d be up for it.
Written by HELEN001 on 27 Nov, 2006
Believe me I tried to think of another way of describing Shibam but I really can't do any better than whoever it was who dubbed it the 'Manhattan of the desert'*. Rising out of the undulating sands of the wadi floor, Shibam with its 500…Read More
Believe me I tried to think of another way of describing Shibam but I really can't do any better than whoever it was who dubbed it the 'Manhattan of the desert'*. Rising out of the undulating sands of the wadi floor, Shibam with its 500 or so, six to eight storey ancient tower houses is every bit as awe-inspiring as the Manhattan skyline. But I also think that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. Shibam is old and, surprise surprise, like many other old sites in Yemen, nobody can agree about just how old. The problem is that the thinner brick walls of the upper storeys have been repeatedly rebuilt and repaired and so are much more recent than the lower storeys and foundations. This makes it difficult to date the original settlement and estimates range from BC400 to AD300 with some of the upper storeys being no more than 300 years old. That’s still old compared to Manhattan I reckon but it’s more than that - the town looks old. I know it sounds a bit cliché but it really is like you’ve stepped back in time when you wander through the narrow alleyways past finely carved wooden doors and look up at the rows of equally beautiful latticed window screens. If you have the time and the energy, it is well worth taking the path up the cliff above the village of Sihayl on the south side of the wadi particularly in the late afternoon when Shibam positively glows below you in the light of the setting sun.
With the exception of Sihayl, which is separated from Shibam by the road and a wide stretch of open ground, there are no suburbs. Shibam has covered the same area of half a square kilometre for hundreds of years and it’s the underlying geology that’s the reason, not only for the almost regular rectangular shape of the town but also for the extraordinary height of the houses. Shibam is built on a rectangular shaped outcrop of solid rock protruding through a sea of sand so limiting any expansion of its boundaries. And historically, a very fortuitously positioned dod of rock it was too - situated at the crossing point of major trading points. As the towns importance grew to capital city status in AD300, so too did the population and the only way to go in building terms was up. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other town or city that has retained its original shape and not spread outwards over time. Great shai stall in the Palace Square, carpets on the ground, shisha pipes, old guys hanging out - very relaxed and friendly. Shibam is just pure dead brill!
*attributed to the English adventurer Freya Stark by my guide book but as this publication also has the Queen of Sheba converting to Islam 1600 years before the Prophet Mohammed was born, this may be suspect information!
Written by HELEN001 on 28 Oct, 2006
Maybe I’d been spoiled by visiting Kawkaban first, but I thought Shibam was a bit of a dump, frankly. Neither the fact that it was the capital of the Yafurid dynasty in the 9th century or that it is home to one of the oldest…Read More
Maybe I’d been spoiled by visiting Kawkaban first, but I thought Shibam was a bit of a dump, frankly. Neither the fact that it was the capital of the Yafurid dynasty in the 9th century or that it is home to one of the oldest mosques in Yemen were enough to disabuse me of this opinion. It was, however, an interesting dump.
Walking the ½ km or so through the outskirts of the village, many of the houses were concrete box jobs usually painted to match the colour of the occasional older stone buildings. There were no predefined street layouts or regimented rows of houses, but it seemed like some form of private low-income housing estate. Houses were springing up at random, and each was spawning its own adjacent pile of rotting vegetation and plastic waste. As we got closer to the centre, the older and the more dilapidated the buildings became. And as for the centre...well, it looked like it was about to fall down. On the piece of rough ground near the taxi rank, pink plastic bags by the hundreds, blown upwards by the breeze, rose into the sky to form temporary clouds before floating back down to earth. No, it’s not all spectacular mountaintop village fortresses and desert skyscrapers in Yemen you know. There’s ordinary as well.
So then it was off to the extraordinary small fortified town of Thula, about 10km north of Shibam. It is a stunning sight, nestling at the base of a steep, rocky outcrop topped by a fortress (Husn Thula). Thula is a rare example of an almost perfectly preserved mountain town. The tower houses are built entirely of stone taken from the mountain, and the decorative features of the buildings result from using different styles and patterns of stonework and walling. We drove in through one of the two impressive town gates and parked in a small, deserted square outside a row of closed "antiqks" shops and next to the Tha’ala Hotel.
After what felt like a million steps, we reached the roof of the hotel, where we enjoyed a great view over the whole village and a couple of glasses of mint tea. The two windows on the left-hand side just before you step out onto the roof are made of wafer thin alabaster, which was used in Yemen before the introduction of glass. The windows are best seen from the outside on the terrace.
A wander around the village will reveal numerous mosques and tombs, an old suq, two large water cisterns, aqueducts, and sections of the town walls. There is also a 2km stone staircase leading up to the empty fortress, which is open from sunrise to sunset and costs 500YR entrance.
Thula is a magical town, and there is something new to admire round every corner. Opposite the hotel is a small café that serves drinks and simple snacks. Shared taxi from Sana’a costs 170YR, or 0.5YR from Shibam.
Written by HELEN001 on 09 Oct, 2006
I’m not usually one for enthusing about retail outlets, but just occasionally I’ll go a bit wild. In old Sana’a, with its combination of gob-stoppingly amazing architecture and brilliant suq, it’s all to easy to walk past treasures without seeing them because, let’s face…Read More
I’m not usually one for enthusing about retail outlets, but just occasionally I’ll go a bit wild. In old Sana’a, with its combination of gob-stoppingly amazing architecture and brilliant suq, it’s all to easy to walk past treasures without seeing them because, let’s face it, the brain can only take so much stimulus at any one time. Especially if you’ve only got a few days in town and you don’t have a decent guidebook. I’m sure I’d have discovered these places if I’d had more than a few weeks in Sana’a, but I’m not so sure I would have found them in that time if I hadn’t been told about them. When I’m at home, I consider shopping to be a necessary evil, whereas when I’m away, it’s more like sightseeing. So I’m not suggesting you go shopping per se; I’m just saying you might enjoy a look at some of the more contemporary delights the suq has to offer. I did. If, on the other hand, you are not keen on art or embroidery, then forget it.
It’d never really crossed my mind that there might be such a thing as a modern art ‘movement’ in Yemen, much less a couple of great art galleries and some excellent artists. There is a thriving Graphic Art Society in Yemen with over 250 members, but in a country where there is no financial support or encouragement for artists and nobody’s got any money to buy their work anyway, only a handful of artists are able to make a living out of it. Two such artists are Mazher Nizar and Fuad Al Futaih, both of whom have exhibited abroad to international acclaim, and it’s easy to see why. What I found particularly interesting, looking at their work, was the apparent relaxation of the traditional rules regarding the representation of humans and animals in Islamic art. Although using different media and having their own distinctive styles, both artists have concerned themselves primarily with representations of women. In a country where the vast majority of women are veiled and dressed in black, the works of these two artists are surprising, refreshing, and very colourful. Considered to be the ‘patriarch’ of modern art in Yemen, Al Futaih’s work can be seen in the National Art Centre near the Al-Abhar Mosque. If you’re looking for a souvenir with a difference, there is something here to suit most pockets. Original paintings can cost up to US$2,000, but there are also excellent quality prints at around YR1000 or, if you’re really short of dosh, postcards cost YR100.
In 1993, Al Futaih founded the Modern Art Group to encourage promising artists, one of whom was Nizar. Inspired by the traditional architecture of Yemen, Nizar’s early works were finely executed watercolours of local buildings and street scenes, many of which are depicted on postcards for sale around the city. Eventually, he too experimented with mixed media producing colourful paintings of animals or women often accompanied by decorative symbolic images such as birds. These are such a contrasting style to his early watercolours, it’s hard to believe they’re by the same artist. The place to go to see Nizar’s work is his Gallery Al-Bab, which is set into the city wall on the right-hand side as you enter through the Bab al-Yaman. The gallery itself is a wonderful place, full of winding corridors, narrow stairways, and small whitewashed rooms exhibiting not only Nizar’s work but the work of other contemporary Yemeni artists. The stairways will eventually lead you to the terrace above the Bab-al-Yaman, which is a great place to idle away some time looking down on the crowds entering and leaving the old city. The prices of the paintings and prints vary depending on the artist, with Nizar’s work being pretty much in the same price range as Al Futaih’s.
My final hidden treasure is a building that, by coincidence, contains an art gallery, among other things. The National Handicrafts Training Centre, which is sort of near the Old Sana’a Palace Hotel and sort of on Al-Sulayhi Street (just ask), is housed in one of the few restored samsarah dotted round the suq. Also situated in the building are a number of slightly pricy shops selling silver, brassware, wooden items, and trunk loads of jewellery. A visit here is worthwhile, not only to see the beautifully yet simply restored interior of the building, but also to see examples of more contemporaneous handicrafts from Yemen. A small shop on the ground floor sells modern craft items such as embroidered bags, purses, and jackets produced by the National Women’s Centre for Development Handicrafts, which was set up to help disadvantaged women earn a living. (The main branch of this organisation is just north of the Al-Abhar Mosque, but when I visited, they were in the process of doing the place up so there were no crafts on sale). The pricey shops in the restored samsarah are worth a glimpse simply because between them they have a broad range of items from all over Yemen. If you’re planning on travelling around the country and you hit these shops before you go, then you’ll have an idea of what comes from where and the max price you should be paying for something.
I’m sure there are plenty more treasures hidden away in the suq, some of which may well be far more interesting than those I went to see. However, until someone else finds them and writes about them, I recommend those mentioned above. (PS The photos have little or nothing to do with the content of this journal entry – I just thought I’d put them in anyway).
Written by HELEN001 on 01 Oct, 2006
I know this is going to sound a bit odd but, the first time I chewed qat I was quite overwhelmed by a feeling of nostalgia for my first infant school – the food in particular. At this school they practised the quaint custom of…Read More
I know this is going to sound a bit odd but, the first time I chewed qat I was quite overwhelmed by a feeling of nostalgia for my first infant school – the food in particular. At this school they practised the quaint custom of giving you the cane AND a lecture about starving babies in Biafra if you didn’t eat your school lunch. The lecture was bearable but as bewildering to a 7 year-old then as it would be today. The cane however, either across the back of the legs or on the palms of your hands, hurt like hell. The problem was vegetables. Hated them. Especially green ones. So I’m afraid I have to confess to having spent many a childhood afternoon slowly chewing a mouthful of vile-tasting green mush. The strength of the memory was so sudden it was like being slapped on the face with a bag of frozen peas. Now, whether this was an effect of the qat I have no idea but if it was, then it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable one.
I knew a bit about qat before I hit Yemen and to me, it sounded innocuous enough in terms of its psychotropic effects. My attitude was, if I was offered it I’d try it but if I wasn’t then I wouldn’t go looking for it. As it happened I wouldn’t have needed to look for it – some of the streets in Sana’a are paved with it. I haven’t a clue how Yemenis decide which qat market is any better than another or even how they know they’ve got the best grade qat for their money. It’s a bit like wine in a way – it all seems to depend on age, bouquet, flavour and which region it comes from. You can also buy it in small, individual neatly tied bundles or go for the family pack and buy the whole branch of a tree. Most people though, seem to buy it by the medium-sized, translucent pink, carrier bag full. The first few times I came across a qat market I actually felt slightly voyeuristic and a bit uneasy with it. It just took me a day or two to get used to the idea that these guys were just ordinary market traders selling a perfectly legal product and not necessarily hard-core drug dealing warlords. After that I relaxed and found the qat traders to be as affable, friendly and as humorous as all the other market traders. The only time I bought any qat myself was from a guy standing on the side of the road half-way up a mountain somewhere miles from nowhere. It’s a bit like a drive-thru qat market on some stretches of road where there’s a seller standing on the precipitous outside edge of the tarmac every 100y yards or so. Far down in the valley bottom you can see the neat fields of the qat plantations, each field overshadowed by a low watchtower. Along the steep lower slopes below the road, miles of terracing hold yet more plantations of qat ranging in height from small shrubs to medium-sized trees. I was told that this is the place to buy qat because the leaves are fresh off the plant. The active ingredient in qat is a chemical called cathinone which is similar in properties and effects to amphetamine. After 48 hours though, the cathinone breaks down to become cathine which, so the text book says, is much less potent than cathinone. So basically, if you own your own bush, you’re laughing! At the crack of dawn every day, truck loads of the stuff are shipped into the towns and cities to feed an internal demand worth US$4 million a year. The critics of qat say that the 80% of land given over to qat production could be used to grow more profitable export crops, that it may cause cancer of the mouth and stomach and that thousands of working hours are wasted every year because nearly 90% of the population are wasted every afternoon. Supporters argue that chewing qat kills stomach worms and parasites and helps prevent asthma and diabetes. They will also argue that the whole qat business from cultivation to sale provides regular daily employment for thousands of workers, although interestingly, they seem to forget that a high proportion of the regular daily pay earned in the qat business is used by the workers to buy their regular daily bag of qat. Some Yemenis also argue from a traditionalist perspective – chewing qat has been a part of their culture for more than 600 years and the ritual is an integral part of social relations in Yemen. Now I’m not even going to try to figure out what would be best for Yemen economically but it seems to me they might be able to afford some decent medical facilities if they were to invest in a spot of growth somewhere in the export market which wouldn’t necessarily be to the detriment of the qat market anyway. Neither can I even think of anything that could replace qat chewing as an important part of social interaction between friends, strangers, tribes and families. It’s a complex issue and not even one that can be resolved by Islamic law as there is no specific guidance in the Qur’an regarding the use of qat. The vast majority of inter-tribal feuding that goes on in Yemen seems to concern land-ownership disputes. In particular, land in productive qat growing areas. I think it would be hard to deny the possibility of a link between the use of firearms and qat cultivation.
On the health front well, I didn’t know about the cancer stuff before I tried qat but frankly I’m not in the slightest bit surprised. I don’t think though, that the three qat sessions I sat through were enough to either raise my overall risk of cancer or significantly reduce my chances of becoming diabetic. Three sessions were enough though to make me pretty damn sure I’d hate to have to do anything involving quick thinking or quick anything after I’d chewed it. Personally I wouldn’t want to drive, handle a gun or work for air traffic control after chewing qat. I’m actually not very good at it either. You’re supposed to keep up a regular flow of leaves into your mouth at the same time as not swallowing any. I found it really hard to eat at that pace – it made me think of rabbits. I also couldn’t quite get the hang of keeping it all on one side of my mouth and I kept swallowing it by accident as well. It also tastes bog awful and I couldn’t figure out why anyone 600 years ago would’ve bothered to chew the leaves for long enough to realise they had interesting effects. Legend has it that a shepherd noticed a goat behaving ‘tranquilly’ after chewing the leaves and it took off from there. I’m not sure if I felt entirely tranquil even though I was sitting on cushions in the mafraj (top floor sitting room) of a traditional stone house with stupendous views over the mountains. I’m not really sure what I felt. Mostly it was pleasant but sometimes I felt a bit agitated and fidgety. It seems that different types of qat produce different effects in different people so you can feel laid-back, animated, aggressive or even more than usually frisky at any given moment after a chew. In common with all chewers however, I wasn’t in the slightest bit hungry and I had trouble going to sleep.
If you do decide to partake then the correct etiquette is that you take your own qat to the chew-in but the host provides the water. If you’re in any way organically orientated then politely decline all offers of a chew. On my last day in Yemen I saw a guy up a qat tree randomly throwing handfuls of what looked like ash over the neighbouring trees. It was actually a pretty noxious cocktail of inorganic fertiliser and pesticide in frequent and unregulated use by qat growers which probably contributes to the risk of cancer and the astringent effect it has on the inside of the mouth. Washing your qat before consumption does not seem to be an accepted practise. It is however, perfectly acceptable for you to throw your empty pink plastic carrier bag away anywhere you like. If nearly 90% of the population are buying qat daily then it seems reasonable to assume that the qat business in Yemen must be responsible for the bulk of the non-biodegradable litter wafting around the country. It might not be ethical tourism to try qat but at least you can try a spot of ecotourism in mitigation by taking your own carrier bag to the qat market.
Written by HELEN001 on 28 Sep, 2006
And when I say smooth operator, I don’t mean in a creepy lounge-lizardy, wide-boy sort of way either. Far from it! No, what I mean is that from first email contact to final farewell at the airport, Mohamed Shaif of Yamanat Tours (www.yamanat.com) was a…Read More
And when I say smooth operator, I don’t mean in a creepy lounge-lizardy, wide-boy sort of way either. Far from it! No, what I mean is that from first email contact to final farewell at the airport, Mohamed Shaif of Yamanat Tours (www.yamanat.com) was a smooth operator in terms of efficiency and organisation. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that Yemen is probably a tad more unpredictable than your average holiday destination, so it helps if your tour operator isn’t.
When I’d sent out my initial email to a number of tour operators (see Do You Really Need a Tour Operator?), Mohamed had replied within hours providing a couple of itineraries, estimates, and a few suggestions about places that I’d never heard of that I might like to visit. He also suggested a browse through the Yamanat website picture gallery as it might give me a few ideas. As I hadn’t, I did and it did give me a few more ideas. You may wonder why I hadn’t done that first but I did try. Unfortunately my ‘Googling’ about all matters Yemeni had been minimal because me and the Omani Internet server were not getting on very well. It took so damn long for the server to access a website that it would die of inertia and disconnect. It had also been a ‘spur-of-the-moment’ decision to go to Yemen and I more or less left as soon as I could once I’d decided to go so I didn’t really have the time to deal with the time I would have to spend in the time-warp of Omani cyberspace. Nevertheless, I got there in the end and what a nice website it was. Now I’m no expert but I’ve been around the Web a bit and in my opinion there are some pretty badly designed websites out there and the travel websites are no exception. I like websites that are easy to navigate, informative, include a few good photos and if possible provide you with clues about the kind of people running the show.
I don’t tend to spend much time in tour company websites that have a ‘corporate’ look or that are over the top with the use of superlatives. I thought the Yamanat website had a bit more character and was more personal than those of the other tour operators who replied so I decided I’d at least book my hotel and an airport pick-up with them to start with. Then we’d take it from there. I’d already told Mohamed in an e-mail that I was a ‘budget’ traveller but if possible I would like to visit Marib, Wadi Hadhramawt and a few mountain villages and stay in funduqs where available. The suggested itineraries I received in reply all covered these destinations and fell within my budget. When we sat down together that first evening in Sana’a it was with a view to broadening the scope of my visit without things getting out of hand on the financial front. Unlike in neighbouring countries, bartering is not an Olympic sport in Yemen so I didn’t expect negotiations to take long. We studied maps and guide books (such as they are) and within a short time had come up with what I considered to be a pretty good arrangement. I’d spend a few days pottering around Sana’a and do a few day trips into the surrounding countryside with Mohammed himself. Then I was going off in a sort of circle with a driver to visit the desert areas of Marib, Wadi Hadhramawt, Wadi Da’wan, then Al-Mukalla on the coast, down to Aden, up to the mountains around Ta’izz and back to Sana’a. After a few more days pottering around Sana’a, Mohamed was going to take me the Haraz Mountains, down to Zabid via Al-Hudayda on the Red Sea coast, back to Ta’izz then Sana’a for some last days pottering. I could have paid slightly more to have an English speaking guide/driver but my decision not to have one wasn’t a financial one- it was to do with me enjoying myself. Although I’ve visited places in the past where if I hadn’t had a guide then I’d have been clueless about what I was looking at, I just didn’t fancy the possibility of being bombarded with verbal information on a daily basis. I do sometimes enjoy just sitting back and looking at the scenery – quietly. I don’t need to know everything about everything so I told Mohamed that I didn’t need a guide as such but I thought it might be sensible to have a driver with a grasp of basic English just in case. I’m not one of those types that think everyone on the planet should speak English as a matter of course. Believe me, I really do try hard with Arabic but I just end up sounding like I’m vigorously clearing my throat rather than producing coherent speech in any language. So I thought that with the help of an English/Arabic phrase book and a spot of mime, me and the driver would get on just fine. I do enjoy a challenge now and then! I left it in the hands of Mohamed the Tour Operator who, a few days later, introduced me to Mohamed the Driver. His English was marginally better than my Arabic but over the course of 10 days we managed to develop a highly effective system of communication between us. We even managed to crack a few jokes at each other. When you employ a driver in Yemen you’re actually paying someone to keep you out of trouble—someone who’s far more experienced at reading a situation than you are.
Mohamed the Tour Operator told me some real horror stories about Western tourists who hadn’t listened to advice and leapt into situations putting themselves and others at serious risk. So by the end of the first day I knew when it was OK to be friendly at a checkpoint and it was best to just be quiet. I knew when I should wear a headscarf and how to behave at a roadside shai stall. Drivers in Yemen have got enough to worry about without having to think about the possibility of their passengers behaving like prats. It goes without saying that you’ve got no choice but to trust your driver but your driver doesn’t have to trust you. If you gain the trust of your driver in Yemen then the chances are that you will have a much more interesting experience. That will only happen if you do as you’re told.
One thing I’m particularly grateful to Mohamed the Tour Operator for, was his quiet insistence that he was sure that I’d be better off in more conventional hotels in some places rather than a traditional Yemeni funduq. A funduq is technically a traditional tower house where beds are provided as mattresses on the floor. In reality the word funduq appears to cover anything from a flea-ridden qat den to a converted palace in Sana’a. So the Hotel Arabia Felix is just as much a funduq as the squalid covered back-alley full of decrepit charpoys in Zabid I had the pleasure of visiting – very briefly. So again, I left the hotel stuff to Mohamed the Tour Operator and consequently enjoyed a rich and varied experience of hotel accommodation in Yemen.
As for Mohamed the Tour Operator, well yes, he is also a very experienced guide however, on our shorter trips together his style was relaxed and informative but easy on the brain cells. He speaks excellent English and is a fount of information on all things Yemeni. It was obvious that he was respected everywhere we visited and in some places I was even given gifts for no other reason than I was with him. A word of warning though to the less speedy amongst you. Mohamed is really into the trekking side of things so when he suggests a short walk, before you set out, lay down your parameters clearly regarding speed, distance and maximum steepness of slopes. The only way I was going to enjoy his comprehensive knowledge of the flora and fauna was if he kept things down to what I would call a ‘leisurely stroll’!
If and when I get the opportunity to return to Yemen, I would have no hesitation in using Yamanat Tours again and I certainly recommend them to anyone thinking of heading that way.