Sunday, 23 December 2007

Yemen 4: Something fishy

Photos are here.

Yesterday we came down from the Yemeni highlands and onto the plain on the Yemeni coast of the Red Sea. The first thing I noticed was a huge increase in humidity. It was like Auckland where you can often break into a sweat just by standing still.

We started the day with a visit to the Hodaida fish market. The market was held in a large shed with open sides and the place was very busy with lots of noise and bustle. The small blue fishing boats were still coming in alongside the wharf. The boats are very small only 5-6 metres long, I wouldn’t want to go up the Whau Creek or the Parramatta River in one let alone out to sea. The crew of the boats unloaded their catches by hand including some fairly sizable sharks. They tie a rope around the tail of the shark and haul it out of the hold like a tug-o-war. To unload the smaller fish one guy sits in the hold and throws the fish into large woven baskets held by two other guys who then run with the baskets out into the market area. Mostly the fish is sold straight from the basket but some people had tarpaulins that they emptied the baskets onto and then handfuls of salt are thrown over the fish to minimally preserve it and the customers cluster round to buy. A piece of string is threaded through the fishes’ mouths, tied to form a handle and the customer then carries their purchase away. There was a man who was acting as auctioneer as well as the fishermen selling direct to the public.

From Hodaida we headed into the mountains again to the shrine at Al Khatayb. The shrine itself is dedicated to a 16th century imam and is made of luminous white marble with large silver doors engraved with inscriptions from the Koran. On a hill overlooking a shrine is a tiny mosque. We walked up to the top for a nice view over the valley below. We have both been affected slightly by the altitude here. On the first day I was puffed after only a couple of flights of stairs so the climb up to the mini-mosque was really hard work.

Next stop was the 11th century village of Al Hajjarah which, like many villages we’ve seen since we’ve been in Yemen, is perched on the edge of a steep cliff. The houses are built directly onto the rocks. The bottom floor of the house is for the animals, the next floor up is for storing grain etc, next up is for visitors, up again is the family accommodation and the top floor lounge has the best view.

We headed down from Al Hajjarh to the small town of Manakhah where we had lunch and, in what was a real thrill (to me), watched a performance of local dance and music put on by some local men. They asked us up to dance and I didn’t need to be asked twice as you can imagine. Yemeni dance is so much fun, its done in pairs with each partner taking turns leading the steps. The other people sit around clapping and singing. Colin got up and joined in the men’s dance with the jambia (dagger) he’d bought earlier in Sana’a. Great experience and most of it on video thanks to our guide Ali who proved to be a good cameraman.

The most common Yemeni snack food is boiled eggs. Wherever we’ve been in Yemen there’s always a tea shop and a boy selling boiled eggs. If you pay a bit extra he’ll peel your egg for you. The tea is always pre-sweetened but even so most of the locals seem to add at least 2 teaspoons of sugar to their cups – they like a bit of tea with their sugar!

In Yemen like in Dubai and other parts of the Middle East and the sub- continent, its common to see two men walking along the street holding hands. It has none of the meaning we would construe in the West, as here its just two male friends making contact, I guess its like an extended handshake.

The traditional Yemeni men’s clothing is a calf length skirt called a futa which is like the Pacific Island sulu. Futas in each area of Yemen have their own particular design so when a man walks down the street wearing a futa everyone knows where he comes from. This seemed to explain some of the attitudes towards our guide Ali as we went around the countryside. Ali is from Al Beara and I didn’t need to speak Arabic to pick up the occasional cool reception he got from some of the people he talked to and sometimes there was a definite “You’re not from round here are you?” feeling. In other places it was all smiles and hand shaking. In some towns the majority of men wore futas, in other places most were wearing white dishdashes, but without exception every man over the age of 12 (and some even younger) wore a jambia (dagger) on a heavily embroidered belt.

From Manakhah we headed back to Sana’a through the mountains. Over many generations Yemenis have built terraces on the side of the mountains there doesn't seem to be any area on some of the mountains which hasn't been terraced no matter how steep. They have planted the terraces with crops, often millet and in the recent past coffee. I didn’t know that the name ‘mocha’ comes from the town of Mokka in Yemen (CSM trivial fact # 36572).

Tomorrow we’re going to a town called Marib. The road from Sana’a to Marib is only accessible to foreigners if they travel in a convoy and have a military escort so we have to be at the checkpoint about 30 minutes out of Sana’a at 9am tomorrow morning.

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