The Children of Sana'a
Updated: Jul 9, 2021
Editor's Update: Shortly after this post was publish, CultureShox learned of a new report by the World Food Program describing an increasingly alarming situation for the people of Yemen. Check out the link at the end of the article to consider ways that you might help.
The Yemeni civil war, which has been raging since 2014, has turned the land that stands at the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula into a no travel zone. But let's be honest, visiting Yemen had never been a high ranking item on many people's bucket lists, Even before the war, the country had long been tagged as a backwards land awash in the threat of violence. Most of what my own compatriots know of Yemen, if they know anything, is that it was the site of a terrorist attack that killed 17 crew members on the USS Cole in 2000.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations' conflict tracker, 24 million people in Yemen are in need of assistance, 4 million of them have been displaced and 100,000 have been killed since 2015 as a result of the ongoing conflict.
I, in fact, probably would not have visited Yemen had I not been compelled by a work trip way back in 2006. I had nothing against the country. I just hadn't thought about it much. The heel of the Saudi peninsula's boot was simply not on my radar at the time. Prior to my visit, I knew little about the country other what my security briefing warned me about. I might has also had a vague notion that the Queen of Sheba was from there. But, as many travelers discover, the most memorable travel experiences often occur when little is known about a place. Preconceived notions tend to get in the way of seeing a destination's authenticity.
I spent a week on the ground in Sana'a, but due to my workload and the security situation during my visit, I did not have a lot of free time to to explore the city. Nevertheless, the few hours that I was able to spend wondering the narrow streets of Sana'a's central district left a memorable impression on me; so much so that Yemen's capital consistently finds itself near the top of constantly evolving best trip ever list.
The first feature that visitors notice about Sana'a are the multilevel traditional mudbrick houses that make up the core of the city's center. The reddish-brown color and white framing resemble gingerbread houses stacked precariously one upon another. Reflecting on how easily gingerbread houses crumble, I worried about the structural soundness of Sana's pressed mud buildings. That concern, I found out later, was unnecessary. According to UNESCO, many of the city's buildings have been standing for centuries.
"This religious and political heritage can be seen in the 103 mosques, 14 hammams and over 6,000 houses, all built before the 11th century." - UNESCO World Heritage List
The buildings of this ancient town, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world by the way, are decidedly deserving of their World Heritage Site designation. Walking in the shadows of those dwellings, however, visitors will find a society that is even more eye-opening.
Life in central Sana'a happens largely outside. People gather, trade, eat, relax, disseminate news and share laughs in the openness of the public squares and streets. The streets themselves are a maze of sights, smells and sounds. They are busy, but not overcrowded in the way that Cairo or Delhi can be. My walk began in one of the city's main squares. Around one corner, in what first looked like a garage, a miller was guiding his camel around a circle. The camel was tied to a millstone that rolled in the center of the circle crushing sesame seeds into oil. I imagined that the process hadn't changed much in centuries.
Opposite of the mill was small shop selling dates and other fruit. Its vendor sat against a wall surrounded, almost hidden, by his produce. Inside his cheek was a baseball size wad of khat (qat), the stimulant drug popular in the region. A glance around at the other men in the street would reveal that nearly half were chewing the intoxicating leaves. Khat is regulated in many countries, but in Yemen and a few other countries, where it is part of the traditional culture, it is sold and used freely.
At that time of year, the streets were dusty. My shoes left impressions in the dust as I walked passed shops selling various items of plastic and metal. I noticed that I was making an impression too on the people who watched me ambling along. Some viewed me with suspicion. Others displayed a more quizzical look. For my part, being mindful of my own safety in a land of which I had been repeatedly warned of dangers, eyed the people who I passed with caution.
My Spidey sense was further heightened because most Yemeni men go about their business in public with a curved dagger fastened to the front of their belt. This type of open carry is rooted deep in the culture. The knife, known as a janbiya is a double edged blade made of fine steel. The handle is commonly made of wood, but men of higher status and means prefer a more traditional ivory or rhinoceros horn hilt. The weapon is held inside an ornamented sheath called an asib. Although a janbiya is a weapon, cultural norms prohibit it from being unsheathed except during extreme cases of conflict. Apparently, a man can pull out a gun anytime he wants, but if he pulls out his knife, things are about to go sideways.
In addition to the traditional knives, guards armed with assault rifles stationed at every major intersection contributed to the warrior-like surface temperature of the society. But beneath the guarded veneer, I soon discovered a hospitable society that was generous and quick with a smile. I passed a café just as an older man was exiting. The sight of a tall, skinny Westerner seem to stun him momentarily. He recovered when he noticed the camera dangling in my right hand, With my senses filled by the other worldliness of the city, I had forgotten about my camera. I had yet to raise it to my eye. The older man pointed at the camera and then at himself indicating that he wanted me to take his picture. I smiled as the men in the café behind him began to chuckle at our cultural exchange. I obliged him. He posed standing tall and proud. Abdo, as I would soon discover he was called, then seemed to forget that he was leaving and invited me to sit with him and his friends.
I hesitated for a moment. But, disarmed by Abdo's smile and the friendly nods of the other men seated around, I joined the table. It was only then that I noticed that my new friend was drinking from what looked like a used aluminum bean can. Before I could greet the group with a friendly Assalamu alaikum, a drink arrived for me. Fortunately it was delivered in a small glass instead of an old can. Everyone at the shaky plastic table lifted their glasses and cans slightly and looked toward me. I also raised my glass and took a sip.
The beverage was familiar, yet not easily identifiable. It was the color of a creamy cappuccino. There was distinct nut flavor, but it did not have the acidity or bitterness of coffee, It came in a type of small tulip shaped glass from which I have often enjoyed tea in Turkey and Egypt. Perhaps it was tea and milk. "Shay (Tea)?" I asked. My hosts said, 'La (no)," and then something else that I could not understand. We sat and sipped. They conversed with each other and shared their plates of nuts and dates with me. I shared the few words that I knew in Arabic, but mostly our communication was through gestures. We couldn't understand each others' words, but we understood respect and companionship.
I found out later, back at my hotel, that the drink might have been a mixture of tea and coffee, but was probably Hijazi Coffee also known as Almond Coffee. That would account for the nutty flavor. Here is a recipe.
After a respectable amount of time, I bid my tablemates farewell and continued down the road. It wasn't long down the path before homes replaced shops. Kids played in the roads only occasionally having to dodge motorbikes and tiny trucks. A couple young boys were kicking a ball around a courtyard as I passed. I pointed to my camera as a nonverbal cue asking to take their picture. Instead, one of the boys kicked the ball toward me. Obligingly, I returned the kick and the three of us began passing the ball around. Before I knew it more kids took an interest. I put my camera back in the bag and laid it down. Goals were agreed upon. More boys joined in the fun.
I don't recall who won or how many goals were scored, but it was one of the most memorable games of soccer that I ever played. After about twenty minutes, I decided I should be on my way. I wanted to explore a little more before returning to my hotel. As I picked up my camera bag announced my exit, one of the children pointed at my camera and smiled. I took his picture and then showed it to him on the camera's LCD screen. He lit up when he saw it and so too did the other kids. They joked with each other and with me as they took turns posing in front of my lens.
I think about those kids whenever I read news about the violence taking place in their country. I remember them as happy, fun loving and energetic kids who made friends with that odd American who somehow found their neighborhood. Fourteen years have passed. Undoubtedly, each of them have been affected by a war that gets very little attention from the rest of the world.
Comparisons between Yemen and Scheherazade's tales of 1001 nights come easily, but I think that association discredits the country and its people. It is true, while there, I felt a little lost in time and farther away from the rest of the world than just about anywhere I have been. Still, those kids who invited me to play, Abdo and his friends, and the other interactions that I had during those few hours of wandering reminded me of how embracing our world can be. In peaceful times, Yemen is a wonderful place to visit. It is a poor land, rich in culture and flavors. Its past lives in its present. Its future, I hope will live in the joyful spirit of the people I met and remember fondly.
World Food Programme warns of worsening famine in Yemen
"Lack of funds and obstacles on the ground lead to increasing hunger for millions of Yemenis"