I was just seven years old when I first heard of Yemen and it was a stamp that introduced me to the country. The name, together with a colourful picture of a hoopoe, was on an unfranked one I acquired for my collection. The strange, fan-like crown, fawn plumage and striped wings of the bird were as unfamiliar to a young boy in the drab North West of England as the name of the country.
In the atlas I discovered it was next to Arabia. Arabia – the very word made the juvenile pulse race as it conjured up images of the exotic. Yemen must be a beautiful place to have such lovely stamps, I smiled, admiring my prize philatelic specimen held carefully between my small fingers. No, I was told, fancy stamps were just something poor countries sold to try to make money: it was probably horrible.
Despite the discouragement, I retained, somewhere at the back of my mind, a fascination with Yemen. Years later, when the opportunity to visit the country arose, I was again confronted with cold water being poured on my interest, this time by friends who, ensconced in their armchairs, hand-wringingly cautioned of the dangers that lurked there, of Al Qaeda and of the perils of kidnapping. Yet their well-meant warnings, informed by lurid newspaper articles, contrasted diametrically with the views of those people I knew who had actually visited the country: without exception, they thought it wonderful and acclaimed its people among the friendliest they had ever met. I was determined to go.
Perhaps I would even see a hoopoe.
Now I am finally on a plane for Sana’a. It is March 2011; the Arab spring that is blowing across Tunisia and Egypt like a simoom is spreading to Libya and Yemen. Perhaps it is not the best time for visiting the erstwhile Land of the Queen of Sheba, but in an area as volatile as the Middle East, putting plans on hold until things calm down is like waiting for Godot; besides, the way events are going, I know this could be the last chance to visit the country for some time. To be honest, despite all the praise from those familiar with Yemen, against the background of growing civil unrest, it is not without some trepidation that I find myself travelling to a country renowned for tribal strife and widespread gun ownership where the Kalashnikov is the weapon of choice.
During my plane’s descent over the capital of Arabia Felix – or ‘Happy Arabia’, as the Romans and, later, geographers used to call Yemen – I am struck by the size of the sprawling city. Extending far beyond the ancient centre of Sana’a is a mass of ugly, modern constructions. Low, sandy-coloured buildings stretch to the mountains in one direction and as far as the eye can see in the other.
The monotony is broken only by the occasional tuft of dark green, scrub-like vegetation. Not here the vivid emerald hues of those cities where money is no object when it comes to making the desert bloom: Sana’a’s penury of water reflects Yemen’s broader poverty and its unenviable position as the Arab world’s poorest country. There is no motorway from the airport to the centre of this, one of the planet’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Instead, my taciturn driver, one hand on the wheel, the other holding his cigarette just outside the open window, races and swerves along a chaotic network of roads. At one point, we career off piste to bounce along undulating and potholed back streets. The way seems so unlikely to be the main route from the airport to the heart of the city that I wonder if I am already being kidnapped, destined to be delivered to my captors only minutes after arriving in the country.
The tight feeling in my chest subsides, however, as, to my relief, we emerge from the desolate neighbourhood to rejoin a paved road. I cannot help thinking how much more difficult, not to say perilous, the circuitous route back to the airport would be if matters were to take a sudden turn for the worse. The hurried, haphazard nature of Sana’a’s growth is evident everywhere: town planning is clearly a concept yet to arrive in Yemen. As I look at the dilapidated monochrome buildings, I reckon that if Eskimos have a hundred words for white, Yemenis must surely have at least as many for shades of beige. Dust is ubiquitous in this desiccated city, settling like some malevolent enchanted powder designed to keep the population under a spell of passivity. Yet, as we pass groups of soldiers and the occasional military vehicle, I wonder for how long the regime will be able to retain its grasp on power or whether the president’s attempts to stand his ground will be about as effective as King Canute’s commands to the sea.
After bumping and battling our way through the newer parts of Sana’a, we finally arrive at the historic centre. We approach it along As Sallah Street, a paved and walled wadi, or seasonal riverbed, that lies a few metres below the level of the surrounding land and that in the long dry period functions as a road. The taxi slows down and then turns on to a short but steep rise that leads back up to ground level and into the old town. The streets look too narrow to drive down, but somehow we squeeze through the rough-walled gullies without scraping the sides of the car. With resignation, the few pedestrians there are – sinewy, dusty figures – step into doorways to avoid being crushed against the walls as we push our way past. We almost come to a halt while the driver negotiates his way over an angled row of collapsible metal teeth that stick up out of the road to prevent vehicles from driving the wrong way down the street, something the lawless Yemenis would surely otherwise do. Suddenly, the road opens out into a sort of misshapen plaza to the left of which stands my hotel.
A couple of hours later after a quick breakfast, I am out on the street, seeking refuge from the glare of the sun and staying, as much as possible, in the relative cool of the shadows that jut out from the high walls. In the modest square near the hotel, several vehicles, mostly light-coloured Toyotas and Suzukis, are parked with surprising orderliness. Plump women waddle slowly between the shops set in the base of the tower houses, so emblematic of Sana’a, later emerging from the shade of the tiny retail grottos with plastic bags bulging with vegetables and packets. Covered from head to foot in sombre black sharshafs, the typical outfits made up of cape, veil and pleated skirt, or occasionally draped in brightly patterned sitaras, the flowing robes unique to Sana’anis, they go about their business at a leisurely pace.
I set off to wander round the labyrinth of dusty streets to discover what is at 2,300 metres one of the world’s highest capitals.
It is just a few minutes’ walk to the souk with its eclectic mix of dried fruit, shining brassware, spices, plastic household items, clothing, and, rather bizarrely, Tate & Lyle Golden Syrup, a clear favourite in Yemen; tins of a size one normally associates with emulsion paint are stacked pyramid-style at one stall after the other. A left-over from colonial times under the British, I wonder? Goods are piled high, but there are few shoppers. Here, life seems to be at a slower, almost meditative, pace. The men running the stores look at me with curiosity, their dark eyes shining. Occasionally, a flash of bright blue or green sparkles incongruously from one of the many tanned faces, a reminder of the importance of trade in Yemen’s long history as part of the spice and incense routes. Every now and then, strange but friendly words float through the aromatic air, inviting me to taste a date or slice of fruit proffered between bony, chestnut-coloured fingers. In the afternoon heat, they flick their wares clean with grey feather dusters, chat with each other, or sit and chew qat.
I had read about qat before arriving, but the first time I see a man walk past me with a mouthful of it I assume he has some dreadful tumour, such is the bulge in the side of his cheek. Only when I see several more men with the same feature do I realise that the lump is not some widespread carcinoma, but the usual way to take the drug. Yet, if it is not a physical affliction, it is certainly a socio-economic one. Banned in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, qat is the drug of choice in Yemen. Its use is both traditional and extensive, although more men than women chew it. Looking somewhat like privet, the leaves produce a stimulant when chewed.
The qat ‘industry’ employs four million Yemenis and turns the afternoons of millions more, including the police, into a mild, drug-induced state of euphoria as they chew the leaves for hours on end before spitting out the dark green pulp where it lies drying on the street, looking like boiled spinach. Vast areas of precious agricultural land and huge amounts of scarce water are dedicated to the production of this drug in a country that has to import most of its food. While it is a useful cash crop for farmers, qat represents a serious drain on the country’s resources with many Yemenis spending between a quarter and a third of their income on it.
I take another swig from my bottle of water and continue my walk through the fortified city. The street begins sloping downhill slightly and I suddenly find myself overlooking a walled patch of vibrant green, one of the communal vegetable gardens that still remain in the densely built old town. It is easy to see why, in the parched lands of the Middle East, green should be the holy colour of Islam, symbolising as it does the triumph of life in what is often an inhospitable environment. A couple of palms and a few other trees stand guard over the carefully planted rows of what look like herbs and salad. Between them sway a few wild flowers as if put there by nature herself as a token gift to those who have so little.
I am one of those old-fashioned people who still send postcards when travelling and immediately bought a handful at the little shop in my hotel. Now, I need to buy stamps and so head to the main post office at Tahiya Square, the site of recent demonstrations. From the historic centre, it is a five-minute walk across a bridge spanning the moat-like As Sallah Street and along a couple of roads where, in comparison to the old city, the shops look modern with their displays of fake designer T-shirts, jeans and a lurid assortment of glittery tops and pullovers. Choking on exhaust fumes, I negotiate my way over a busy street, half of which is taken up by cars parked with an abandon that is in abject contrast to the neatness of those in the square next to my hotel. I make my way past the half-dozen or so policemen in blue uniforms, who are leaning nonchalantly against the metal barricades at the roadside watching the world go by. Eventually, I reach the post office with its distinctive bright yellow hoarding and walk in front of a tight row of men, young and old, sitting on the ground with their backs against the wall of the building. As if transported from the pictures in my guidebook, in their traditional long white thobes and with scarves tied round their heads, the men present a typical Yemeni image as they chew qat and casually chat to each other.
‘Welcome to Yemen!’ says one of the younger men, raising a hand as I walk past. He adjusts the red and white chequered scarf draped round his neck as if he is cold, a near impossibility given the temperature, and beams a smile that could get him a job advertising toothpaste.
‘Thank you!’ I nod, still a little surprised by the friendliness I encounter everywhere.
It is difficult to see much of Tahiya Square itself as demonstrators have set up a series of large tents from which loudspeakers blast out a mixture of music and political speeches. For now, the atmosphere is relaxed, almost festive, but I know that as and when things heat up this unremarkable square could end up being the crucible of a bloody revolution.
Inside, the post office, its canary-yellow corporate colours now tempered with sombre grey, is surprisingly quiet. About half of the ten or so counters seem to be designated exclusively for pay-outs to the few men huddling round them or filling out forms; the rest are closed. Disorderly piles of papers lie on a couple of tables, other sheets and stubs, crumpled and discarded, litter the floor. I spot the stamp counter to my left; it is unmanned, but after a few moments a silver-haired official appears. His dark eyes look at me solemnly from behind his improbably large nose as he waits for me to say what I want. Not knowing how much English he speaks, I show him my six postcards and say ‘Europe’. Outside, a voice bellows through the loudspeakers in declaratory but not aggressive style, the volume only partly muffled by the post office walls and windows. Whatever the orator is saying, the glum man in front of me pays no attention. Instead, opening a large bound book with the deference one might normally reserve for a medieval Koran, he carefully takes out a strip of stamps and with long fingers slips them under the security window that separates us. Bordered by a thick band of yellow, the stamps show a photographic view of old Sana’a; their modern and utilitarian appearance pales in contrast to the almost artistic beauty of my boyhood specimen. I pay my 600 rials; and as I stick the stamps on my postcards, I recall briefly the child I once was and sense a momentary flicker of satisfaction at having finally made this journey, even if the country’s philatelic production is not what it used to be.
Extracted from Robin Latchford’s very excellent new book, ‘From Souk to Souk‘. Pictures, however, courtesy of Shutterstock.
Copyright © 2014 Robin Ratchford