When Shem, son of Noah was looking for a spot to lay the foundation of Sanaa, he had chosen a site further away from the city’s present location. But just when he was about to start his project, a bird had magically appeared from the sky, plucked his guide rope off the ground and dropped it further east. Shem had immediately recognized it as a sign and thus had Sanaa been born out of a beautiful legend, Biblical myth and divine intervention. For a city so magical, it had been most befitting and Sanaa indeed is like no place on earth. The city, which is the present Houthi capital (Aden is the world recognized Yemeni capital), can be divided into 2 parts and the new city is a far cry from the old quarters. Although I had stayed in Old Sanaa, my travels used to take me to the newer areas on a daily basis and the stark difference had been glaring.
The new city had broader roads, more upscale restaurants, luxury stores, posh salons and a brand new swanky Al Saleh mosque. The fateful President’s house had been located there as well and I had gaped in wonder at ostentatious stores of Porsche and likes. My favourite Alshaybani Restaurant had been in the new city and apart from a sumptuous spread, it had views worth it’s Rials. It had been a hot favourite among better off Yemenis, foreigners, young families and college crowd. Mohammed, his friend and I had spent many pleasant afternoons there feasting on Yemeni flat bread and Saltah. A cute little stew of beans, some kind of meat, eggs, spices, tomatoes and fenugreek, Saltah had always been served in a communal steaming hot stone bowl and we used to scoop out the gravy using the bread as spoons. During most afternoons, mine had been the only foreign and exposed face and I can’t deny not liking the attention. Yemeni food is to die for and it is an unique mix of Middle Eastern, Turkish and Indian Mughlai influences. Kababs and other tandoor (clay oven) based dishes had been very popular Yemeni dishes and I had loved the ample use of hawaij spice mixture in their food. Honey had been generously used in their cuisine and Yemen produces some of the world’s best bee nectar.
Apart from the glaring age and economic difference, the whole city had of Sanaa had shared some very unique features. Yemen is a plastic land and the whole country is littered in a most eye sore manner. Plastic bags can be found flying in the air, dumped in heaps and scattered at every possible inch of Yemeni space and the biggest reason (as pointed by Mohammed) is qat. A flowering plant commonly found in Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa, Qat is an addiction. The tradition of chewing qat leaves date back to thousands of years and it is a WHO (World Health Organization) certified drug of abuse. Although, considered as contraband in most countries around the world, Qat is grown all over Yemen, Djibouti, Somalia etc and nearly the entire population had seemed to be addicted to it. Yemeni morning markets had always been a colourful, chaotic photographer’s dream and the milling crowd around the qat vendors had been a sight to behold.
Men and women used to crowd around them to purchase plastic bags full of tender qat shoots and those mild euphoria inducing leaves had been quite expensive. The best leaves had often been priced at around 500 Rials =2/3 Usd/bag and the whole day would see happy Yemenis scouring through their loot intensely. Qat chewing had come with a technique and from selecting the best leaves, snipping off the stems with teeth, stuffing them into a massive growing ball inside the mouth and continuing to chew one for hours, the addiction had nearly been a national pastime. I had tried my hand at qat too and after the initial sweetish taste of a mild buzz, had not found my chipmunk look quite worth it. But qat markets had been my favourite place to photograph and nearly every morning I would end up ambling around either Old Sanaa’s souks or the nearby village markets.
Yemeni people are one of the most friendliest bunch in the world and they love being photographed. My initial reservation of taking pictures of an orthodox Arab society had quickly turned into delight, as Yemenis would pose for my camera with big, cheerful smiles on their faces. In fact, most of them used to request for their photos to be taken and every tourist would get mobbed, in a friendly way over pictures. While, the graceful veiled urban women in black had been intimidating even for a fellow female like me, some of the rural ladies would shyly peep at my camera from a distance. Yemeni women, in spite of their fully covered attire, had been gorgeous and I had loved the multicoloured, beautifully printed chador (sheet covering body) sporting village girls. Some of the villages near Sanaa had beautiful terraces and apricot orchards and the blooming gardens used to be flecked with chador clad girls in big straw hats. They used to dot the golden landscape like big, timeless butterflies and because of their large droopy straw hats, I had initially, mistaken them for scarecrows.
Yemeni men in contrast to their women had been extremely suave, friendly, unassuming and respectful. I had walked around Old Sanaa numerous times with/without Mohammed and apart from calling out a greeting or gifting me handfuls of dates/pockets of Yemeni coffee or dry fruits, they had never even once crossed the boundaries of familiarity. Dashing, courteous and well mannered, it had been a common sight to find a Yemeni husband lovingly holding his wife’s hand in tranquil privacy. They, in general had preferred their traditional costume over Western attire and their perfect combination of dazzling white thoob, meshedda shawl headdress, dark blue jacket, wide ornamental belt and ornate curved Jambiya dagger had always been accompanied by an omnipresent dangling plastic bag of qat leaves. The bags had always been emptied out twice or thrice a day (depending on addiction) and drowsy eyed men with massive bulging cheeks full of qat had been quintessentially Yemen sight. Another Sanaa feature had been smiling, curious children and the winding old alleys of the Unesco Heritage Site would see them playing ball, hopscotch and hide n seek. Little girls running around kicking football with their friends had been an extremely pleasant sight and for my gun sore eyes, they had been like small messiahs of a world, where everything was alright.
Guns had been a major cultural shock in Yemen and although, I had grown accustomed to seeing them everywhere, the sight of one had always made me nervous. Yemen is a conglomerate of different tribes and carrying weapon is a part of their cultural heritage. It is akin to carrying of kirpans by Sikhs in India, except that the Yemeni Jambiya (dagger) is not of any religious significance. Jambiya is a curved sheathed knife which Yemeni men carry on their body, by tucking them into a wide belt and the real expensive ones are family heirlooms. Their blades are not of much value, but the hilt of the expensive ones go up to tens of thousands of dollars. Made from either rare black rhino or ibex horn, heirloom Jambiyas are passed down from father to son and are a matter of pride. While most tourists (including me) understand the cultural value of the sight of so many massive daggers in public, the sheer number of assault weapons seen on Sanaa streets is hard to come to terms to. I remember gawking in fright at my 1st sight of a Kalashnikov rifle in Sanaa and had nearly howled from fear when a man bearing an AK47 had stood next to me in the forex store.
In Yemen, there are guns everywhere; at the markets, on the streets, at weddings, restaurants, teas hops and on the streets. From being constantly scrutinized by armed Houthi boys at multiple checkpoints scattered across the country, rubbing shoulders with gun totting residents at Old Sanaa to seeing men celebrate at wedding parties by either firing them/dancing with them, it had taken me just 1 day to get seriously weapon weary. No matter, how common and quintessentially Yemeni sight it had been, even accidentally touching/rubbing into one, had always sent a cold shiver running down my spine. Those feelings are hard to pen down and it used to take at least a few minutes to get my pounding heart back to normal. I remember always trying to look away from them and pretend as if the weapons did not exist, but they had been there all the time, everywhere. Sometimes, in the hot afternoons, when I had looked down from my hotel room at the Old Sanaa street life, I had found happy squealing children playing hide and seek, around their gun wielding watchful fathers.
It had been a very bittersweet sight and I had found the combination of guns and roses absolutely mesmerizing. Those moments are as unforgettable as the spectacle of the curious play of light and shade in the historic streets of Old Sanaa.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE