Posted on August 23, 2011 - by mira
Yemen is a country of many firsts. Aden, the southern port-city, takes its name from the Arabic word for Eden, the paradise of Adam and Eve and the birthplace of humanity. Yemen is also known as the cradle of civilization. Arabs trace their origin to this land in Southern Arabia. They believe that tribes left Yemen and migrated north when the Dam of Marib broke and sustainable agriculture ceased.
Hadramaut’s Shibam, in the east, boasts of the first known skyscrapers, an architectural marvel that British traveler Freya Stark termed the “Manhattan of the desert” when she saw the city. The Western al-Mokha port is where Mocha coffee beans originated.
Today, much of Yemen’s history can be experienced and felt. But its greatest wealth shouldn’t just be its past. Its treasure is its people and the vision that they shape for the future of their country.
Will chew qat for a photo
The landscape changes frequently on the road north from Aden to Taiz, one of Yemen’s larger cities and the site of ongoing anti-government protests this year. The first tall mountains with multiple blade-like peaks appeared about an hour from the coastal plane. Before the mountains, the landscape was covered with sand and lush trees, including tall palm trees. A few patches here and there were reminiscent of the African jungles. At one point, trees dotted the left side of the road, while on the right they gave way to shallow sand dunes that went on for miles.
A few small villages came into view in the distance. They were clusters of just a dozen houses or so, and they didn’t appear to have any schools or hospitals.
About an hour and a half from Aden, we passed the border that once divided the country into two Yemens. Physically, nothing was left of the border. We were leaving what used to be known as South Yemen.
Finally, we reached Taiz. I asked the driver, who was from Taiz, why people weren’t carrying AK-47s here like they did in Sanaa. (Some time later, a ban on publicly carrying weapons was enforced in the cities.)
“Taiz is very safe!” he exclaimed.
I walked in the alleys of the Old City of Taiz, looking for good photo opportunities. I was surprised to see many women among the peddlers. Unlike women in Sanaa, they wore bright-colored scarves decorated with pinks and yellows, or long, loud orange headdresses that also covered their bodies. Many of the women sold qat, and openly chewed the narcotic leaves in public, something Sanaani women would never want to be seen doing. The fact that more and more women were chewing qat in their private gatherings was already causing quite a stir in the capital.
One of the female sellers on the sidewalk invited me to try her brand of qat.
“It’s very good for you,” she said. “It will make you stronger.”
I’d been told many times how qat would make me touch the moon and see Beirut from my comfortable seat in a Sanaani tayramana, but my qat experiences weren’t quite like that.
I sat next to the woman on the ground and tried to persuade her to let me take her picture. She wouldn’t allow me to and kept covering her face with her rough hands. Soon a crowd of men and boys gathered around us and intently watched this foreign woman with a camera whose hair wasn’t covered and who spoke Arabic.
Before there was Facebook
Further up the road on the way to al-Ashrafiyah Mosque, I heard in English, “Hello! Welcome to Yemen! Where are you from?”
I told him. The man responded with the Yemeni expression that meant something similar to ‘nice meeting you’: “Hayyash Allah. Would you like to take pictures from the roof of my house?”
Just like that. I hadn’t been in Yemen long enough, so red flags flashed in my mind. Was this a ploy to kidnap tourists? Over time, I would learn to let my guard down more often and be more trusting of Yemeni hospitality. However, at that moment, I hesitated, but in the traditional Yemeni fashion, he insisted.
It was amazing. His roof had spectacular views of the Old City and its white minarets. Four of his daughters and one of his sons joined us on the roof. The girls and I hugged. The oldest daughter wouldn’t allow me to photograph her at first. Self-conscious, she was growing into timidness and puberty, a young woman’s cage, and because of it she now had to wear the black balto and cover her hair, which her younger sisters didn’t have to do yet.
When the time came to leave, she wouldn’t let me go and invited me to have tea with her and her family. She led me down to a room in the house on my way out. I poked my head in and saw a group of women sitting together. Their hair was uncovered because there weren’t any men. I waved goodbye. They waved back and smiled. My new young friend walked with me to the road and said goodbye with difficulty.
“I will miss you,” she said. I told her I would miss her too.
A young Yemeni man sat on the edge of the cliff outside the al-Qahira Fort on top of the mountain, where the Imam’s soldiers fought off the British army. His feet dangled down toward the valley. He offered some of his qat, and a group of us sat cross-legged on the edge of the cliff, and chewed in deep contemplation until the sun was low in the sky.
On the way back down the road, I heard my name and turned around. A little hand was waving from the window. It was her, my young friend. She came running out.
“Do you have a fax number?” she asked.
I didn’t have a fax. I had internet. Did she know about the internet?
She said, “OK. I will miss you. Bye.”
Minutes later, she came running back from her house and caught up with me down the road. “We have internet, we have internet,” she shouted.
I didn’t have a paper, so I wrote my e-mail address on the palm of her hand and told her to wait until it dried so it wouldn’t smudge. We hugged. She walked home, looking at the palm of her hand all the way back.
Read more posts in the series: Yemen Journey: A personal narrative of my life in Yemen
Stay tuned for the rest of the story. This is a new series on my life in Yemen, to be updated every Tuesday and Friday (unless I’m on the road and internet-less). Send me your questions or share your thoughts in the comments; I’d love to read them.
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