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A Weekend in Yemen... - By Rebecca Wicks

Last week, I went to Yemen. Now, there’s a sentence I never thought would come out of my fingertips. But I did, despite warnings from absolutely everyone about potential kidnappings and men who carry AK47s to breakfast. But flights were cheap, we had nothing better to do (except move house, obviously but there’s nothing quite as liberating as shirking responsibility) so we packed our wheely cases and headed off into the unknown.

Landing in Sana’a, it was obvious that we were somewhere... let’s say special. Organised chaos at the airport meant it took an hour to get our visas and through immigration, but we were soon collected in a clapped-out taxi and driven to our hotel: the Sana’a Nights Tourist Hotel, to be precise. The people of Yemen like to confirm their hotels are for tourists. And tourists stand out, if not for their milky skin and protruding telephoto lenses, for their wide-eyed stares and flapping guppy mouths.

Like me, who was warned against wearing my latest flowing dress purchase from Goa “ bright blue and covered in swirling flowers “ most female tourists stay concealed beneath scarves and abayas, but it’s advisable to go with it, out of respect. This is after all, a strict Muslim country. We rarely saw a woman who wasn’t covering everything but her eyeballs.

Sana’a, if you’ve never cared to Google it, sits within a mountain range and thus endures the temperamental forces of Mother Nature. One minute the sky is sapphire blue, the next it’s showering hailstones the size of marbles on your head. It’s a city forgotten by time, yet time has taken its toll; it dates back to the Sabaean dynasty of the 6th Century BC and its multi-storey buildings of clay line the cobbled streets like gingerbread houses “ icing sugar paint outlining every, tiny window.

The city has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years and wandering its streets is a bit like exploring a living fairytale. The characters are all here too “ Hansel and Gretel wearing dungarees and smiles caked in grime run at you from doorways, scattering chickens and startling donkeys in their paths. The scary grandma sits huddled over piles of ripe tomatoes, her face, what can be seen of it, contorted with a cheek-full of qat, or khat “ a leaf that acts as an amphetamine-like stimulant, said to have an effect much like caffeine but we weren’t too sure. It tastes like what it is “ leaves.

My friend pointed out, quite rightly: “when other ancient civilizations were battling with stones and grunting, there were people in Yemen building and living in multi-storey houses.” It puts things into architectural perspective.

rock palace

As we left bustling Sana’a with our local guide, Ahmed, the pages of our fairytale kept turning. We wove our way along perilous mountain roads in a 4x4, like a modern Jack climbing his beanstalk into the sky, and stopped to take pictures of entire villages cast into mountainsides. The ancient walls looked as though they might fall at any moment, yet children continued to race and play tag in their colourful, doll-style clothing, squishing up against the bricks, chasing bedraggled goats, dragging the hands of weary mothers from shop-front, to food-stall, never once fearing their world might suddenly crumble.

One of the most impressive sights was most definitely the Dar al Hajar, or the “Rock Palace“. Constructed on top of a humungous boulder, this incredible building was once the summer haunt of the powerful Imam. It’s a bit of a favorite destination for Yemeni families, as well as tourists, although the local kids followed us around like we were famous members of a pop group (great for the ego “ Yemen). "Surrah, surrah!“ they shout: “Take a picture, take a photo!” So we did. About 800, actually.

Stunning architecture aside, it was the people who made this weekend adventure, really. I’ve never encountered such amazing hospitality. At the hotel we were treated to a private dance performance (daggers and dish-dash swirling on a bright red carpet) and at the end of the trip, Ahmed, our guide, took us to his house to sample tea and his wife’s homemade cake.

We saw no physical violence in Yemen, although we definitely saw guns. We never felt anything but welcomed, safe, respected and altogether absolutely awe-struck. From the gingerbread houses to the mischievous glints in the children’s eyes, Yemen is one fairy story everyone should add to their collection.

Posted: 23 April 2009

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