Post Bayt Bows day of unrest, I had been a bit afraid to go exploring. My departure date for Socotra too had been just round the corner and I had been contented enough to stick to the safety of my room. Thus the rest of my Sanaa days had flown uninterrupted, with me trawling the internet on free wifi during hot, sunny days, loitering the winding maze of alleys for cups of tea in the evenings and going for sumptuous dinners with my 2 Mohammeds at night. Both my Yemeni friends had been called Mohammed and they had not only been childhood pals, but also business associates. One Mohammed had been my tour guide, while the other one had been the taxi driver. Being childhood buddies turned business partners, they had shared same mischievous mindset, single status, open unorthodox views and bone tickling sense of humour. Incidentally, both had also been easy on the eyes and on way too many occasions, I had noticed Sanaa ladies stare them openly through through the veil of their purdah.
Having them around had been a lot of fun and both of them had provided me with some eye opening insight into the world of an orthodox Arabian society. Yemen is one of the most orthodox Islamic nations in the world and I had been very intrigued by the workings of their young society. Since male-female attraction and all that goes with it, is an universal and timeless, absolutely natural phenomenon, I had often wondered if the Young Yemeni people had dated, met people and spent time with them, like most youngsters around the world. The fact that all the female faces I had seen around me had been veiled had left me more curious and the stranger part had been Yemen’s pro woman divorce laws. Their universities and offices too did not have any gender segregation and I had burned with curiosity to know about the privies of their veiled world. The truth had been unmasked by the 2 naughty Mohammeds and the shocking reality had glaringly proved the human need to rebel against repression. Both the gentlemen had endless number of girlfriends with whom they had stayed connected at odd hours through social networking site and more than often, they had whisked their lady loves away in their car, to spend quality time with them. The ladies, too had reciprocated the attention with equal fervour and those naughty stories had made me double over with laughter at many late dinners.
Food as mentioned before had been Yemeni national pride and my favourite place had been an open air street food market near the Old city. It had been held in a small square, where street food vendors had hawked kebabs, sugarry tea, fuul, fish and other chicken dishes. Huge clay ovens had tossed out flat bread in large batches and kebabs had sizzled succulent over glowing embers. Strings of naked bulbs, sprigs of fresh mint, quickly set up rough hewn tables and benches had made up the entire place and singsong voices of the vendors had risen to shout orders and shoo away beggars. That street market had also been a sort of mini global village and from American, Asian tourists, African refugees, Arab and sub continent expat workers, the crowd had been as lively as possible. It had been there, that I had nearly choked over Mohammed’s story of a lady manhandling him in a car and clucked sympathetically at their college days’ attempts to steal female students photos from admission registers. Boys will always be boys and those ridiculously naughty (and probably a bit embellished) stories had come out as bright sparks of freedom in a pretty repressed society.
Those Sanaa evenings had been very lovely and I had loved the way, educated Yemeni men had positively included me in their tea table discussions. Exchange of ideas, mint tea, moonlight and jasmine bushes in one of world’s most beautiful cities had been most stimulating and many myths and misconceptions had been broken during those chat sessions. Thus it had been during one such meeting over tea, that a tourism department’s official called Ahmed had introduced me to the Saleh Mosque and had urged me to pay a visit. It had been my 2nd last day in Sanaa and with my urge to wander straining against the galloping time, Ahmed had found it easy to influence me. Saleh Mosque had happened immediately the next day and I had found it awfully lacking in character. A huge, formidable modern place of worship, Saleh Mosque had stood in the outskirts of Sanaa and open to non Muslims, it had represented moderate Islam. Constructed in 2008 by the then President of Yemen, it had been an extremely ambitious project and its opulence had cost pots of money. While the mosque’s Himyarite (Himyarite had been an ancient Greek and Roman kingdom in Yemen) architecture had been it’s highlight, in my eyes it had been a very greedy attempt of borrowed Islamic styles from across the world. I had found glimpses of Iran, UAE, Bahrain, Syria, Malaysia, India within the whorls and crevices of the exquisite mosque and my disappointment had made me wonder, if I had traveled a bit too much to be immune to such grandeur.
The day had still been fresh by the time we had left Saleh and after a quick lunch of wood roast chicken, we had proceeded towards the iconic Rock Palace. Located atop a rocky outcrop of the beautiful Wadi Dhahr Valley, Rock Palace had been to Yemen what Taj Mahal is to India. It had been Yemen’s most iconic structure and one of its most photographed monument. Built in 1786 by a well known Islamic scholar and cleric, it is also known as the castle on the rocks. The valley of Wadi Dhahr had been pretty famous for its beauty and it had been a quick 20 minutes drive from Sanaa. Surrounded by fruit trees with the rocky pinnacle protruding from their midst, Wadi Dhahr and Rock Palace had promised an unforgettable sight, but in the hazy heat of noon, none of the valley’s greenery had been visible. Although, vineyards and orchards had stood in neat rows, clusters of grapes and plump pomegranates and apricots had been coated with dull dusty brown. Even the majestic fir trees (imported by the Imam himself) had looked insipid and I had wondered at the possible repeat of Saleh disappointment.
The first sight of the Rock Palace had taken by breath away and the restored castle turned museum had been truly spectacular. It had perched on top of the strange rock pinnacle like a natural crown and its architecture had seamlessly mingled with the contours of the huge outcrop. The palace itself had been like a box if surprises, with meandering staircases opening up into corridor of rooms in the most unexpected ways and the rock had been cut to accommodate the entire complex within its heart. An entire maze of kitchens, bedrooms, store rooms, sitting areas and recreational areas had been separated by complex system of stairs and the palace had been cooled by network of huge windows, cross ventilation and water wells, housed inside the rock. I had loved its stone cold heart, its lovely play of rainbow coloured stained glass windows and the sweeping vistas which had opened up from its height. It had been easy to spend time there I had hung around there till muezzin’s calls had filled the Wadi Dhahr. The violet skies had heralded an end to my Yemen mainland explorations and I remember looking over Mohammed’s shoulders to take long last looks at the troubled beautiful countryside.
The sun had turned soft by then and mellow light filtering through the stained glass had produced fuzzy faded butterflies. Mohammed had stood facing the huge open window and the entire panorama spread in front of him had been awash with setting colours. Inside the room, where he had stood, a dim light had cast those fuzzy stained glass rainbow patterns on his pristine white dress and the vision of light spread in front of him had been breathtaking. A young Yemeni man standing at the edge of light and darkness, had represented the reality of his country’s prevalent situation and the way his people had somehow withstood the darkness of the present with rosy hopes of the future. I had tiptoed over to peep at the panorama over his shoulders and had wondered if the brink of light and shade, hope and doom could again ever be reversed for Yemen. Truly beautiful and splendidly glorious, loss of Yemen’s heritage would be a dark day for world history, for after all, it is the land of the wise and powerful, Queen of Sheba and the progeny of King Solomon.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE