Yemen – Land of the Queen of Sheba

In November of 1996 I made a journey to the ancient country of Yemen on a business trip, following meetings in India and Kuwait. The morning that I departed from Kuwait City I spent an hour at the airport in the Oasis Business Class Lounge, sitting under a Bedouin tent canopy in the middle of the room and being served fresh brewed Arabic coffee, orange juice, and delicious pastries from a silver trolley. Little did I know, as I boarded the Kuwait Airways First Class cabin, that I would have to spend the whole day travelling to Yemen. First was the flight from Kuwait to Bahrain, then a 3 hour layover before boarding the Gulf Airlines flight to Jeddah and another 2 hour wait for the Saudi Airlines flight to Saana, Yemen. (my 2 hours in Jeddah were spent in a small windowless room with two other foreigners, under the watchful eye of two guards from the Saudi military. We felt almost like prisoners!) Finally I began the last leg of my journey in First Class aboard the Saudi Airlines flight. Before takeoff we were served strong Arabic coffee from a beautiful traditional silver coffee pot, followed by a selection of dates. (travelling in First and Business Class really helped make the long trip a whole lot easier) As I sat in my seat, we passed over the Red Sea, beautifully highlighted by a brilliant sunset. Suddenly I realized that I had been travelling or working every day for the past two weeks, and it would continue for another week in Yemen! Upon landing at Saana airport, I was met by a young man from NATCO (National Trading Company) the Esri distributor in Yemen. It was a long drive to the hotel at night, through dark, crowded streets, and as I looked around, it became obvious that Yemen was still very much a third world country – like night and day from Kuwait! The Panorama Hotel was close to the NATCO office, but despite the new computerized elevators, it was definitely not a five star property.

Sunrise in Saana
Sunrise in Saana

I awoke early the next morning to a gorgeous sunrise over the mountains that surround the city, under clear blue skies. As I looked out my hotel window, I saw a group of soldiers marching and drilling on a dusty parade ground.

Army post next to hotel
Army post next to hotel

That’s when I realized the hotel was next to a large army post. Suddenly the hotel turned on the loudspeakers in the hallway, one of which was directly outside my door, and the “wailing” of a female singer blared out full volume! That’s when I decided it was time to head downstairs for breakfast. It consisted of one hard boiled egg, a piece of dry stale bread, a small glass of a mystery fruit drink, and a lukewarm cup of instant coffee. After breakfast I was driven to the office to begin teaching the GIS training class. (NATCO is the largest company in Yemen and sells everything from toilet paper to luxury cars!)

Typical street scene in Saana
Typical street scene in Saana
Streets of Saana
Streets of Saana

Looking at the street scene, most of the Yemeni men wore long white robes, small turbans, and a large, elaborately decorated leather belt with a long curved knife tucked into it. (I found out later that it’s the traditional dress of all Yemeni men, and the decoration of the leather belt is closely tied to each Bedouin tribe in the country) As it turned out, the training classroom was next to another army base, and around noon, after the call for prayer from the local mosque, several police cars, with sirens screaming, roared up to the gate behind the NATCO office. A large crowd gathered and a lot of “animated” discussion took place, after which several guys were loaded into the police cars. Then they roared off with sirens wailing! When I asked the students what had just happened, I got no answer – either no one knew or they didn’t want to say anything. (so it remained a mystery)

Over the next few days I observed many strange and fascinating things about Saana and the country of Yemen. Among them:

  • The city is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world, dating back thousands of years. It’s also one of the highest capital cities in the world at 8,000 feet elevation.
  • Most buildings are only 2 -3 stories tall and the city is surrounded by high, barren mountains.
  • The land is very dry and barren, except for the occasional oasis.
  • There are a lot of traditional old buildings in the classical Arabic geometric style, but the streets are often very narrow and in poor condition, having many sections unpaved and full of deep potholes.
  • Streets everywhere were littered with garbage, plastic bags, rocks, stones, and even abandoned household items or broken car parts.
  • The narrow streets were lined with hundreds of small shops, and every one of them had large, heavy metal doors that opened out into the street – often dark, having no windows.
  • Traffic was chaotic and generally “unruly” – somewhat like I remembered of Cairo. Stop signs and traffic lights seemed to have no effect on driving. Whoever had the larger vehicle, louder horn, or perhaps more “balls”, had the right of way!
  • Late at night, men sat at small tables outside on the street under the dim glow of a street lamp, drinking tea and talking with each other. (I could only wonder what they discussed – world events, family affairs, local gossip, …)
  • There were a few beggars on the street near the main intersections, and young kids tried to “clean” car windows with a filthy cloth. But this paled in comparison to a scene in India.
  • The majority of vehicles were very old and dilapidated, in strong contrast to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

As I returned to the hotel later in the day, I suddenly became aware of a large stuffed hawk clutching a stuffed rabbit on display in the lobby, at the entrance to the restaurant! (it did nothing to stimulate my appetite) One afternoon, as I sat in the NATCO conference room preparing for class the next day, the sunset call to prayer suddenly blared out of the mosque next door. It was followed by a “lengthy” sermon delivered in the tone of “hell fire and brimstone”. Meanwhile, the sound of the army troops drilling on the parade ground echoed in the background. One evening, upon returning to the hotel, I had a delicious dinner of chicken escalope, deep fried and served with fresh sliced tomatoes and green peppers. But the next morning, it was another breakfast of one hard boiled egg, a piece of dry stale bread, a small glass of mystery fruit drink and a lukewarm cup of instant coffee. (obviously the breakfast menu never changed) When I arrived in the training classroom, I found an old, dusty overhead projector whose lamp was so dim that it barely illuminated anything on the screen, which was just one of the bare walls. And the floor to ceiling windows in the back of the room didn’t help the situation! As I started the class I discovered there was only one marker for the white board, and it happened to be red. (not my favorite color) Later on, I found out that two of the students had never used a computer before, and when you combine that with their very limited ability with the English language, it was an impossible situation, to say the least! When the class finished that first day at 1:30pm, I was ready for a cold beer – but there’s no alcohol allowed in Yemen! However, the general manager of NATCO invited me to join him for lunch at a very nice Lebanese restaurant where we sat outside in a beautiful courtyard and enjoyed an amazing array of traditional Arabic “mezzahs“ (appetizers) and lamb shish kabobs. Meanwhile, one of the gardeners was watering the lawn and flowers with a large “fire hose”, and huge volumes of water were gushing from the hose – drowning everything! During lunch Mazen told me some of the history of Yemen and the origin of the Arabic people. According to popular legend, Yemen was founded in ancient biblical times by Shem, the son of Noah, and was known as “Azal”. After lunch I changed to the Plaza Suites Hotel and was shown to a large apartment which had an office, living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom. It was far more space than I needed, but it was a nice gesture. Suddenly the electricity went off, but a few minutes later the backup generator switched on and all was well. Later in the evening I called room service and ordered a couple of non-alcoholic beers. A few minutes later, a loud noise, like a foghorn, boomed out – it was the doorbell, and my drinks arrived.

View from my hotel room
View from my hotel room

After a few days, I felt I was getting burned out on Yemen. My hotel was miles from any tourist sights, restaurants, or shops, and taking a walk wasn’t much of an option either. Safety wasn’t the issue, there was nothing to see or do anywhere close to the hotel. (I began to feel as if I was under “house arrest”) My students were very nice and quite curious about the world outside of Yemen, but they struggled everyday with English and were constantly making spelling errors as they typed commands on the computer. It was very frustrating, both for them and for me, but somehow we managed. The weather continued to be very pleasant, with clear blue skies, cool temperatures at night and warm days.

Trash bin surrounded by trash
Empty trash bin surrounded by trash after collection

Though, on the negative side was the overwhelming amount of trash everywhere, along the roadside, covering vacant lots, and around almost every building. Yet there were large trash bins scattered around, but they were rarely used. Instead, people either tossed their trash out the window or deposited it “next” to the trash bin, creating large piles of trash surrounding the bin! Occasionally, a brand new garbage truck would come by to empty the trash bin – two guys would jump out , pick up a few things around the bin and then proceed to dump the bin into the truck. When the truck moved on, the empty trash bin was left sitting in the middle of a large pile of trash that remained untouched. (this would usually happen twice a day) Though I failed to understand the logic of the trash collection operation, the pile of trash left around the empty bin did appear to serve a purpose.

Goats and sheep "grazing" on trash pile
Goats and sheep “grazing” on trash pile

Once or twice a day a herd of goats and sheep would come along to “graze” on the trash pile! Besides the daily trash collection routine, the call to prayer echoed from every mosque in the city through huge loudspeakers five times a day, beginning at 5 am! It became my “default” morning wake up alarm. During my training session in Yemen, I became aware that the hotel and NATCO office had new British 3 prong electrical outlets, but all of the electrical appliances and computer equipment had standard 2 prong European plugs! On another occasion, I noticed that the NATCO office had brand new toilets, but they were not always functioning properly. One had no water, but the light fixture worked, while the other one had water, but the light didn’t work.

Army post at dawn
Army post at dawn

One morning I was awakened at 4:30 am by the sound of army troops running past my bedroom window, shouting out cadence. Right after that came the 5 am call to prayer from the mosque nearby. It was definitely a sign that I should get up. On the way to the NATCO office to continue the training class, I was met at the front gate by the guard, equipped with a submachine gun. It seemed that almost every large building had an armed guard. Back at the hotel that afternoon, I noticed that the “Beauty Salon and Boutique” still had not opened its doors since the day I arrived, despite the “open” sign posted on the door. Perhaps the sign wasn’t correct or it wasn’t really a Beauty Salon or Boutique?

After the training class the next day, Mazen arranged for Mr. Najeed to take me on a personal tour of the old city. We drove through the heavy chaotic traffic at breakneck speed, weaving in and out of lanes, dodging pedestrians. (or were they dodging us?) Finally, we arrived at the old city gate, or at least what remained from the 12th century. And at once the architecture became one of very old stone buildings, each one stacked upon the other, in the geometric style of classic Arabesque design and very distinctive. The beautiful red terra cotta and brown stone contrasted brilliantly against the clear blue sky.

Old City of Saana
Old City of Saana
Old City of Saana
Old City of Saana

We parked the car and began to walk the narrow, ancient cobble stone streets – very crowded, noisy, and bustling with activity. As we entered the heart of the old souk (market), we were “jostled” by the crowd around us, very much like we were just another corpuscle moving in the bloodstream of life! Deftly, Mr. Najeed lead me through narrow, dark, winding passageways, up steep stone steps worn down by many centuries of feet. We passed many quarters dedicated to various trades, such as leather work, shoe making, and iron mongering where everything from picks and shovels were forged. One quarter was exclusively for the production of the classic curved Yemeni knife. It was absolutely fascinating to look at trades that had changed little since the 12th century! It was another “time warp” that was so characteristic of Yemen. At one point we came to a small square and Mr. Najeed pointed out an old stone building and said it used to be the public water supply before a modern water system was installed – just 20 years ago! Then we re-joined the bustling crowd in the narrow, tent-covered street, and as we turned a corner the shops suddenly changed from trades to beautiful, brilliantly colored fabrics hanging from every available spot. Further on were carpet shops with hundreds of gorgeous silk and wool carpets from throughout the Middle East. The “rainbow” of color and design was truly astounding. At last we came to the main central square, a large open area with scores of merchants selling everything from dates, raisins, nuts, and various seeds to a fascinating myriad of exotic spices and fragrances. As we walked through the open-air market, it seemed like every ten feet the smells changed – a true “collage” of sweet, pungent, spicy, and even foul sometimes! It was a delightful, though hectic, trip for my nose – a true adventure for the senses. Not far from the main square, Mr. Najeed showed me a very old mosque, over 1400 years old, and one of the first in the world.

Old Mosque
Old Mosque

Islam has been here in Yemen for an incredibly long time, and its influence on the culture and traditions is unmistakable and deeply rooted. As we walked past the old mosque, Mr. Najeed said he would call his dear friend who lived nearby to see if we could go to the top of his building for a view overlooking the old city, which sounded great to me. Suddenly Mr. Najeed stopped at the street corner, looked up and shouted loudly – “Ahmed”!! (and all along I thought he meant he would “telephone” his friend – stupid me!) After “calling” his friend, who unfortunately was not home, we walked to a beautiful green garden surrounded on all sides by very old buildings.

Community garden in the Old City
Community garden in the Old City
Community Garden
Community Garden
Community Garden
Community Garden

Apparently, each family in the neighborhood had a small plot of land for growing fresh vegetables. It was a peaceful little oasis in the middle of a densely populated area. As we walked back toward the old city gate, we were treated to a spectacular pink and orange sunset that etched a lovely pattern in the dark blue evening sky. The silhouettes of the old stone buildings and the mountains beyond framed the glowing sunset perfectly. As we neared Mr. Najeed’s car, an old homeless man living under a cardboard shelter called out his name. It turned out that Mr. Najeed knew the old man as a young man, but now the old man was suffering was Alzheimer’s – truly a sad sight. Mr. Najeed gave him some money as we left. Further on we turned a corner and immediately found ourselves being literally “sucked” into the crowd, being pushed along, not necessarily in the direction we wanted to go, but we were definitely being moved somewhere. Then something caught my eye – several men walking among the crowd carrying huge sums of money. They were obviously “money changers” and somehow they felt safe from thieves who are punished severely by Islamic law, having their right hand chopped off! As we neared the car, evening was rapidly falling over the old city and shops were lighting up old kerosene lanterns, lending a new, softer glow throughout the narrow streets. As we drove back to the hotel, Mr. Najeed told me that 20 years ago the whole city was very clean, in stark contrast to today’s huge piles of plastic trash that litter the streets. I would have loved to see this city without all the litter and trash.

Old City of Saana at dusk
Old City of Saana at dusk

The next day I finished the training class, one of the most “painful” I’ve ever done, but all the students were very appreciative and presented me with a lovely gift. Later on, Mazen invited me to join him for lunch in his home, along with several of the country’s most influential business leaders, which was quite an honor for me. His home was an enormous estate constructed entirely of brilliant white marble and surrounded by a 15 foot high stone wall. There was a large, Olympic size swimming pool “inside” the house. But all around the outside of the estate were piles of trash, so typical of Saana!Upon entering the house, we removed our shoes and joined all of the men in the huge living room where we sat in a large circle on cushions and low couches only 6 inches off the floor. Many beautiful and very expensive Persian carpets covered the floor. After some conversation, we washed our hands and headed into the large formal dining room where we sat on more gorgeous carpets. In front of us was an enormous spread of traditional Arabic and Yemeni food. As people began digging into the various bowls , only with their right hand per Islamic law, I did the same, as Mazen introduced each dish to me. The grilled, spicy ribs of lamb were particularly delicious, but there wasn’t anything that I would not have eaten. I was very surprised to see Mazen, as the General Manager of NATCO, serving all of us. But later I was told it was a very old traditional Yemeni custom, even though he was probably the richest man in the country. During the entire time, there were no women visible as they were all in the kitchen and not permitted to enter the dining room or living room where the men were present. One of the guests for lunch was the nephew of the country’s president, and I noticed straight away that he carried a pistol the whole time. Many of the other men had the traditional Yemeni curved knife tucked in their belt. At the conclusion of lunch we were served a sour yogurt soup in a small stone bowl, along with a fantastic array of luscious Lebanese sweets. This presentation was followed by hot tea served in gold rimmed cups, as we sat in the living room on the cushions and low couches. For me it was a rare glimpse of traditional Yemeni culture. After the amazing lunch, Wael brought out large branches of a local bush with lots of new sprouting green leaves and passed them around the room. He informed me that the plant is known as “Qat” (pronounced cat) and when the young leaves are chewed they release a mild narcotic both relaxes and stimulates the body and mind. (chewing Qat seemed to be endemic in the Yemeni culture – could it be a substitute for alcohol?) As everyone sat around chewing Qat, Wael served hot Arabic coffee made from the ”husks” of the coffee bean, making it a strong acidic taste. I declined the invitation to join in chewing Qat, but after constant badgering by Wael, I relented and stuffed some leaves into my mouth. I was instructed that one should stuff just the left cheek, slowly chew the leaves to extract the juice, and “not” to eat them. I never did find out why only the left cheek – surely not another Islamic law! Soon cheeks were “bulging” and the conversation mellowed out considerably. I found the taste to be quite bitter and acidic – Wael said it was an “acquired” taste. I spent the next couple of hours “slowly” trying to acquire the taste, unsuccessfully. However, I did begin to feel a mild high, as if I’d had a couple of glasses of wine. Given the choice of chewing Qat or drinking wine, I’ll take the wine. During the afternoon session of Qat chewing, there was an interesting French TV show called “Qui est Qui” (Who is Who) where three contestants tried to determine the professions of a panel of six people, given a list of six possible jobs. They had to ask questions of the people in order to figure out how to match them with the jobs. The really interesting part of the show came when the people had to “demonstrate” some aspect of the job that the contestants had “guessed” as matches – it was often hilarious! I thought back to the days of Groucho Marx and the old TV game show “What’s My Line”. Meanwhile the bushes of Qat, having been stripped of their leaves, began to pile up in front of everyone. Eventually the conversation slowed and it was time to go home. The President’s nephew picked up his pistol and everyone else tucked their knives in their belts! I was offered a ride back to my hotel by a man named Tareq, who had not been chewing Qat. He must have been something like the Yemeni equivalent of the “designated driver”, I would guess. Back at the hotel that evening I ordered a couple of non-alcoholic beers from room service, and the same “foghorn” for a doorbell announced their arrival. Then I packed my bags in preparation for my departure in the morning. Later that evening I stood on the balcony and admired the spectacular show of stars in the dark night sky above me.

The next morning I awoke early to a beautiful sunrise outside my bedroom window. As I stood on the balcony, the air was cool, the sky clear and the streets quiet. I looked around and saw a young girl on the street below having trouble herding her goats past the large pile of trash around the trash bin. Apparently the trash was very attractive to the goats. I hauled my bags downstairs to the hotel lobby to wait for my ride to the airport, which was invariably late. Meanwhile, several Landcruisers arrived and men got out to join a group already in the lobby. One of the Landcruisers was elaborately decorated with colored ribbons and flower garlands, leading me to conclude that it was part of a wedding party. As I continued to wait for my driver, more men of the wedding party arrived.

Wedding party arriving
Wedding party arriving

Most of them with submachine guns slung over their shoulder and pistols in their belt. (there were no women to be seen) All of the men greeted each other with three kisses – then many photos were taken, each guy made sure his weapon was prominently displayed! Then another Landcruiser arrived with two older men who were greeted with special reverence. By this time, the hotel lobby was crowded with gun toting Yemeni men, while the TV in the corner blared out the sights and sounds of MTV! What a stark contrast of cultures – like being in an episode of the “Twilight Zone”. About then the hotel desk clerk leaned over to me and said that the old men who had just arrived were the fathers of the bride and groom, and this was the first meeting of the families. (the wedding had taken place the night before  and the newlyweds had spent their first night together in the hotel, being an arranged marriage) Even though my ride to the airport was over two hours late, I was grateful for having another fascinating glimpse into Yemeni culture. Finally Wael arrived with the driver and on the way to the airport he presented me with a very special gift – a traditional Yemeni knife in a beautiful gold braided leather belt. It was something I had wanted to buy but hadn’t had the opportunity to do so. So it was a very nice gesture on his part. Then it was another bare knuckle drive through chaotic traffic , dodging pedestrians, with the horn blaring constantly – apparently the only way to drive in Saana! Pedestrians scattered to the side of the road as we raced to the airport – sometimes overtaking cars on the left and sometimes on the right, as well as sometimes on the wrong side of the road. (at any time the road would suddenly go from 2 lanes to 4 or 5 lanes, depending on how big the vehicles were) At one intersection traffic was halted by a cop standing in the middle of the street. But after a minute or two, the drivers became impatient and began “inching” forward into the intersection, with horns blaring. At last the policeman waved his hand and we were all off to a Monte Carlo start – drivers waved their fists at the policeman and shouted insults! Finally (and thankfully) the airport came into view, surrounded by barren fields. At first the police stopped us from driving up to the terminal building – was I supposed to drag my bags up the road I wondered? But my driver convinced them that I was an important foreign VIP and they should make an exception to the rule. As soon as we pulled up to the terminal, three guys descended upon the car, ready to load my bags on the “free” luggage trolley. It rapidly became obvious that it would be virtually impossible to avoid their “services”, even though my driver steered the trolley to the terminal entrance by himself. Quickly my bags were x-rayed as I pulled myself away from the “luggage leeches” and headed inside to check in for the flight to Dubai. I walked up to the Emirates Airlines First Class counter, only to find out that my reservation had been cancelled! (I had forgotten to reconfirm it within 72 hours) On top of that, I was told First Class was fully booked and I might be downgraded to economy. I must have had a “pitiful” look on my face at that point because the station manager came up and took mercy upon me, personally guaranteeing me a first class seat, though I might have to settle for an economy class meal as they had only 15 first class meals on board. Luckily I was given a boarding pass for a first class seat, and after filling out the departure card and passing through immigration, I was officially “stamped” out of Yemen. I had a delicious cup of Arabic coffee in the Emirates First Class lounge before the Dubai flight was announced for boarding. Going through the security checkpoint involved not only the usual metal detector, but also a very thorough body search! As I boarded the bus that would take us to the plane, a ticket agent was collecting knives from men and tagging them with the passenger’s name and seat number. Upon boarding the 767 I found my seat was in row 1 and next to a console with fresh flowers. Just as I sat down, I was offered a hot, perfumed towel, followed by a cup of strong Arabic coffee and a selection of dates. All of a sudden, to my pleasant surprise, I was handed a chilled glass of Pol Roger Champagne – so refreshing! As the plane departed Saana, we had excellent views of the surrounding mountains – ancient geologic formations, deeply eroded by centuries of wind and water.

Leaving Saana
Leaving Saana
Ancient mountains of Yemen
Ancient mountains of Yemen
Southern coast of Yemen
Southern coast of Yemen
Desert landscape of the Arabian Peninsula
Desert landscape of the Arabian Peninsula

Unexpectedly, our route of flight took us southeast to the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, then along its southern coastline, and finally north to Dubai – in effect we skirted around the Saudi border for an unknown reason. Essentially, it made a normal 1 ½ hour flight into 3 hours. However, since the first class service aboard Emirates Airlines was outstanding, I didn’t mind the extra flying time. The lunch service was superb, beginning with a selection of Arabic mezzahs (hummus, goat cheese covered with fresh cracked black pepper, pickled vegetables), followed by a fresh green salad with baby corn and a delicious lemon-olive dressing. The main course was a fabulous plate of grilled prawns in herbed butter and coriander. And for dessert there was a luscious pistachio meringue tart, as well as a selection of cheeses and fresh fruit, along with a glass of Taylor’s 20 year old Port. All of this was served from an elegant silver trolley. I finished lunch with a cup of fresh coffee and a glass of Cointreau on ice – absolutely superb food and gracious service!

Upon landing in Dubai, it was very obvious that I was now in a world far removed from Yemen, and once again I experienced a time warp. As I walked off the plane, I looked forward to spending the next few days “decompressing”. But the experience of being in Yemen was unforgettable and one of the most unique places I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t always comfortable, but always fascinating!

(Note: As I read about the civil war in Yemen now, I can’t help wondering what the old city of Saana must be like these days. And I can’t help but believe that the centuries old traditions and culture must still persist, despite the ravages of war!)

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