How is Yemen different from other countries as a tourist destination? We invited Petra Beuchert, a German national resident in London and a frequent world traveller, to visit Yemen and write an account of her experiences. This is her story.
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I arrived at Sana’a airport after a four hour flight from Cairo. The airport is small and the facilities basic, but visitors are greeted with a smile and a “Welcome to Yemen”. A refreshing change from the cold, clinical approach that travellers are so used to at almost every world airport.
There are three customs checkpoints open for foreign visitors and one for Yemen citizens. The result is a fast and efficient check of our visas, and before we realize it, we are in the luggage claim area.
My host and tour guide Ali Mushaima is there to greet me. Ali – owner of Arab World Tours and publisher of this book – is from Bahrain, but has as much affection for Yemen as he does for his own country. He visits Yemen several times a year, either to conduct tours or just to lose himself in the rustic, calming surrounds that the country affords.
Outside the airport, our driver is waiting, a big smile on his face. He says something to me in Arabic, which I assume are words of welcome. His name is Mohammed, he drives fast, overtakes constantly and appears convinced that a car must not just be seen, but heard at all times. To him, the horn is as indispensable as the accelerator.
I am in Yemen as a tourist, invited to join a group of writers and photographers. To me this means I can spend my time here in a relaxed frame of mind, exploring the country and taking in the sights, smells and sounds of what is already unravelling itself as a unique travel experience.
My very first impression of Yemen, formed at the airport, was that this was a poor country. And so it is, but as I quickly started to discover, it is also a beautiful, friendly and surprisingly charming country.
Travelling through the capital Sana’a makes you feel like you are heading back in time. The architecture of the houses in the old part of the city is unique. The streets are lined with narrow, red-bricked multi-storey buildings. Colourful stained glass arches are perched atop the wooden windows, and when viewed from within, the sun beams a rainbow of colours that playfully dance along the walls of the room. The effect is beautiful, entrancing even, and I have to pull myself away knowing that Ali has a packed programme planned for us.
Our first destination is Dar Al Hajar – the Rock Palace. The name is appropriate – this beautiful five-storey palace sits atop a protruding rock formation. Built in 1930 as a summer residence for then ruler Imam Yahya, the Dar Al Hajar is now a museum.
We make our way up through a maze of rooms built on different levels. As at our Sana’a hotel and other buildings, the steps are extremely steep considering that most Yemenis are short-statured.
Each step is an exercise in itself. We arrive at the top exhausted, but once there, it is the view that takes your breath away. It is a spectacular panorama of the old city, and makes the climb more than worthwhile. Most houses in Yemen have a room and terrace on the top floor, the equivalent of our western penthouses. The room itself is used as a place for the family to congregate or to entertain friends.
From a distance, all Yemen villages blend effortlessly into their environment. No matter what colour, height or shape of the rocks and mountains they are set in, each village seems to be etched into its unique surroundings. We learn that only when one gets closer to a village that it becomes apparent just how big it really is.
We head back to the streets, which appear filled with men and children, but few women. For the most part, you see women only in and around the suqs – the traditional Arabic markets.
Near the Dar Al Hajar is a meeting place for newlywed Yemen grooms. The gathering takes place on a plateau close to the palace. It is apparently a tradition for grooms to come here the day after the wedding, to dance and receive wishes from those that could not come or had not participated in the previous night’s celebrations.
The grooms and best men all wear their wedding costumes – very colourful and accompanied by the obligatory Yemeni dagger. The men dance barefoot to the beat of traditional instruments, waving their daggers, their movements graceful at all times. During and after the dancing, we take photographs. Children especially love posing for pictures.
Next stop, a mountain village on the way to Al Hajjarah. The news of visitors to the village quickly spreads. This will happen to you everywhere you go. The arrival of foreigners generates much excitement, and the welcomes are genuinely warm.
Children are usually the first to come up and greet tourists. Often they will argue among themselves as to who has the sole right to become your tour guide. It is amazing how professionally these discussions are handled. They are always solved with a lot of dignity and within a few minutes.
With so many children eager to tell us about their village and show us around, everybody in our group eventually gets their own personal tourist guide.
You will be surprised and overwhelmed by the happy eagerness of these children to give you a tour. Rarely are you asked for money. There are a few with a strong business sense, but they will quote the price of a picture or a tour in advance. Which is fine as the charges are very low and you get the VIP treatment wherever you go. More likely than not, all that the children ask for is a pen.
While all children know Arabic, it is astonishing how many speak at least one other language. This is especially true in places regularly visited by tourists. The first question you are likely to get is “Where are you from?” Depending on your answer, they then floor you with a “Bienvenue en Yemen”, “Willkommen in Yemen” or “Welcome to Yemen”. This is where my language skills end, but these children are familiar with many other languages including Italian, Spanish and even Japanese.
In one village, my 13-year-old guide told me that he spoke some German, but if I would be happy to have a guided tour in either French or English he would be able to tell me more about the history of his village. I chose French and it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. He spoke fluent French without ever having been taught the language at school. He told me he picked it up by listening and talking to tourists passing through his village. As a bonus, he threw in the odd German word while showing me around.
Almost every village house seems to have a “downstairs shop” that opens as soon as the news of your arrival spreads. Doors open left, right and centre to welcome you to look at their selection of jewellery, silver, antiques and souvenirs. My young guide did his duty of showing me these shops, but kept reminding me that at the end of the tour he would take me to his shop. Shortly before we reached the place where we started the tour, he handed me over to one of his friends who had accompanied us, vanished for a few minutes and came running back with a table of goods carried above his head. It was his “shop”!
In another village, a little girl we passed in the street took my hand (her other hand was firmly attached to her younger brother), and both of them followed us around during our sight-seeing tour. These children never stopped to amaze me.
Our next destination was the Al Hajjarah Hotel. Perched high up on the mountain, expect the last few kilometres to be a rough ride. The road is narrow, steep and unpaved, but the spectacular view makes it worthwhile.
The hotel is popular for its lunch and entertainment. Lunch is extra special in Yemen. Expect to be served lots of traditional delicious dishes, dips, salads and fruit followed by Bint As Sahan (Daughter of the Plate), a sweet pastry which is topped with lots of Yemeni honey.
After lunch our “hosts” get the entertainment rolling with traditional music and dancing. We’re invited to join in or just enjoy watching the dancers and listening to the music. The next surprise comes when the owner of the hotel proudly announces that they have Internet access and we are welcome to check our e-mails if we like.
With this kind of treatment, it is hard to leave, but we have a busy schedule as Ali wants us to see as much of Yemen as possible in the time we have.
The next day starts with a trip through the Sa’ara valley. We drive along a dried out riverbed. Most of the land is used for agriculture but there are also acres upon acres of untouched greenery. This is nature at its most pristine. You will see a lot of tropical plants you will recognise from your living room, except that here they grow a lot bigger and many of them flower.
The valley seems especially fertile. We see a lot of families farming the land (you will get used to seeing camels rather than cows pulling the plough), and of course we are greeted by many children along the way.
Unlike in other parts of Yemen, the women’s clothes are especially colourful. All women in Yemen are veiled and in this valley they also wear hats of straw.
Our group is invited to have lunch with the Sheikh Mohammed Abu Ali. A few minutes after our arrival, the floor is covered with trays of delicious food. We dine sitting on the floor, eating with our hands. This is a new experience for me, as like most westerners, I am used to eating at a table using a knife and fork. After lunch, Sheikh Mohammed joins us, and all the men sit chewing qat. in true Yemen tradition.
Afterwards Ali and I walk up the mountain path up to see the Sheikh’s prisoners. I did not know what to expect; actually, I did not particularly want to visit a prison, but agreed to do so after some urging. After a long climb, the path ends and we reach a little “fortress”. One of the sheikh’s men who accompanied us rings the bell (a rope with tins strung together that create enough of a racket to be heard in the village below) to let the prison guard know that we’ve arrived.
The guard meets us and takes us to see the prisoners. This prison was quite unlike anything I expected. Sitting in a small room were the prisoners – a father, his two sons and a cousin – chewing qat, drinking tea and chatting with the guard. One of the boys was doing his homework. If it were not for the fact that their feet were cuffed, this could very easily have passed for a scene from someone’s home.
The men looked happy and were proud to be in the Sheikh’s prison. Why were they arrested? A fight between the two men which was resolved by the wise Sheikh. He decided to lock up both quarrelling parties, not as we might expect, in different cells, but together to ensure they could not do anything else but talk to each other and resolve whatever dispute got them there in the first place.
When we saw these prisoners, no decision had been made as to how much longer they would have to stay in prison but the men did not seem too concerned about this. They considered themselves guests of the Sheikh.
Our next destination is the old town of Ma’rib. Now Ma’rib apparently is notorious for kidnappings, so special efforts are made to ensure tourists are safe. At around 8 am, we gather at a checkpoint. Many guides arrive here with their tour groups. Each of the cars gets its own armed guard. I don’t like guns, but for some reason it does not bother me that there is an armed guard sitting behind me. Even our driver Mohammed has brought his own gun especially for the Ma’rib trip. “Just in case,” he says with a big smile, stowing the gun under his seat.
For additional security, we have several cars equipped with machine guns escorting us.
Ma’rib is a deserted settlement of multi-storey houses built with mud, not stone as with most Yemeni villages. It is surrounded by desert. We visit a dam and other archaeological sites which have a lot of historical interest.
After returning to Sana’a, we then head for the city of Ta’izz, and among other things, visit the suq (traditional market). Ta’izz is more modern than Sana’a. Its suq is unique in that you enter it through a big old stone gate. The suq is quite small, but it has a great many silver stores.
If you visit Ta’izz, make sure you also drive (or hike it up!) to the top of the 3,000-metre high Jebel Sabir. Halfway up the mountain is a mosque which offers the most beautiful all round view. You can see across Ta’izz and the cultivated mountain terraces that are so typical to Yemen.
On our way back to Sana’a, we visited Ibb, the charming capital of the province by the same name. The old town is especially worth exploring, with its stone-paved streets and tall stone houses.
Back in Sana’a, I had the most deliciously prepared fish I have ever eaten. The fish is sliced open like a book, brushed with exotic spices, then grilled in a clay oven.
This sumptuous meal is a fitting end to an amazing travel experience; certainly this trip was very different from anything I could have dreamed it would be.
Would I recommend Yemen as a tourist destination? Let me put it this way: If you have an adventurous spirit and are willing to sacrifice a few luxuries, you will enjoy being in Yemen. Forget your fears about kidnappings (these stories have been greatly exaggerated by the western media anyway), take basic precautions, get yourself a good tour guide and you will be ready for a holiday you will be talking about for years to come.
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