Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Yemen 1: Old Sana'a, a medieval-modern Islamic city

We were up at 4am this morning and heading out to Dubai airport for our Emirates flight to Sana'a the capital of Yemen. The flight took just over 2 hours. As Sana'a is at 7,000ft above sea level the pilot needs to have a special licence to land there. We met Bruce, a Kiwi guy from Paraparaumu ("Paraparam") in the immigration queue while we were waiting to get our entry visas. Bruce has worked on the oil fields in the Middle East for 15 years or so. He now works in Yemen but he was saying that the last job he had was in the backblocks in Oman where summer temperatures often reached 65c, which makes 50c in Dubai seem cool in comparison. He told us that Yemeni driving was worse and more frightening than Dubai driving. Hard to believe but he was right. Judging from the cars we saw there isn't a straight panel on any car in Sana'a and we now know why! On the drive from the airport there were cars coming at us from all sides, including a stationwagon with a goat in the back, utes loaded with kids, there are no lane markings, pedestrians just do whatever they like and as for the motorbikes, well, if you can't get at least three people on a motor bike then you just aren't trying. Seems to me that Yemeni drivers would cease to function if they couldn't use their horns. One of the major roads is a dry river bed which has been converted into a road with high sides which still floods when there's heavy rain.

Our hotel is in the middle of the old town of Sana'a. In its' past, Sana'a has recovered from floods, earthquakes, looting by tribesmen, and during the 1994 Civil War, a Scud missile attack. The entire old town area of Sana'a was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. The unique tower houses are made of mud brick and up to 5 storeys high. Their origin lies in the remote villages where farmland was scarce and building vertically was the only way to accommodate the people while making efficient use of the available land. Ibn Rustah, a 10th century Persian explorer, wrote about Sana'a in his Book of Precious Records describing “houses adorned with gypsum, baked bricks and symmetrical stones.” The exterior walls of the houses and the edges of the windows are marked with white gypsum which gives the look that's unique to Yemen. In the afternoon we wandered around the area and had a wonderful time, the Yemeni people were so friendly, the men and kids happily posed for photos of course the ladies are off limits for photographs. I was pleasantly surprised that not one of the kids asked for baksheesh. People passing us said "hello" or "asalam aleikum", or gave the thumbs up. Colin bought a jambiyya which is the traditional Yemeni knife. It is attached to a belt covered in intricate handwork which takes a woman a month to stitch, though the majority seemed to be machine made. He wore it like the Yemeni men do and this seemed to be a hit with the local guys. We went off down an alleyway to a shop which sold antique guns and bought an old English rifle dating from 1874. Today is the first day of Eid al Adha so its a public holiday and most of the shops in the souq were closed.

One of the Eid traditions is that on the first day all the children are given new clothes, so the streets of Sana'a were filled with little girls in gorgeous fairy/princess dresses even fairy wings on a couple of littlies and the boys in new dishdashes (I don't know what they call them in Yemen). Every male over the age of 12 wears a jambiyya (the dagger) as part of his every day clothes and it's a point of pride. However, they are for show and rarely drawn in anger. In the Emirates and Oman the daggers are called "khanjar" and are only worn on special occasions. In Dubai you'll never see a man wearing a dagger, in Yemen you'll never see a man without one! The dagger styles and shapes differ from place to place and the handles are made of everything from rhino horn to plastic and some of the blades are old while others are made of recycled metal taken from car driveshafts. The scabbards of Yemeni daggers are often bound in a green fabric tape (legal secs, its like the tape we used to bind legal briefs back in the old days)

We have another day in Sana'a tomorrow before heading off for 3 days into the countryside. Our photos of Old Sana'a are here.

(1) Richard Brooks Jeffery, Assistant Curator, College of Architecture, University of Arizona.
(2) Eric Hanson's article in Saudi Aramco World.

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