My visit to Yemen

With Yemen in the news I thought I would recount my trip to the country in 1996 or so.  I spent five or six days in Sana'a, the capital, and I remember the following:

1. At the biggest and best hotel in town, no one spoke English or any other European language.

2. Most of the women wore full veils.  This allows them to stare at foreign men, and make lots of direct eye contact, without repercussion.  The younger girls looked like this.  I've never been stared at more in my life, by women.

3. Virtually all of the men carried daggers in their sashes.

4. Most of the people seemed to get stoned — every day, all day long — by chewing qat.  I recall reading that qat supply amounts to about 20 percent of the economy.  This estimate suggests that three-quarters of the adult population partakes in the habit, every afternoon.

5. The country has the most amazing architecture I have seen, anywhere.

6. The best restaurant served fish doused in red chilies, with a vaguely Ethiopian spice palate for the other dishes.  You eat with your fingers.

7. Most of the people lived what was still a fundamentally medieval existence in a medieval setting.  The center of town felt like how I had imagined the year 1200 in Baghdad.

8. Yemen has perhaps the biggest problems with water supply, and vanishing aquifers, of any country.  Qat cultivation makes these problems worse and for many years Yemeni government policy subsidized water extraction.

9. At the time the capital city was quite safe, though German tourists would get kidnapped in the countryside on a regular basis.  The Yemenis had a reputation as very hospitable kidnappers.  Usually the kidnappers would hold the tourists in return for promises about infrastructure.

10. I was accompanying a World Bank mission and had access to "the government driver" (singular), and a Mercedes-Benz.  He did not speak any English or any other language besides Yemeni Arabic.

11. With the possible exception of the Bolivian altiplano, Yemen is the weirdest country or region I have visited.

12. The last decade has not, overall, been a good one for Yemen.

13. In the fall the climate was very nice.


"In the fall the climate was very nice" is true of much of the world.

Yemen (that is, the coastal towns) used to be a much greener place, iirc

The Hadramawt is even stranger, architecturally, due to its relative isolation. Around Sana'a are some great green areas, including fairly big mountains with good hiking (though maybe the hiking is out for the time being!) Since 1996, the biggest change Tyler would notice is the Somali immigrant population, especially in the South; say, Aden. Even years ago, huge areas of the country were too dangerous to visit - the north with its insurrection, and Marib (of Queen Sheba fame) for its kidnapping come to mind.

Such a different culture than the United States. Very interesting pictures Tyler.

Re: qat, it still seems weird to see words that start with a 'q' that is not followed by a 'u'. I know Qatar, etc... but I don't think about those words very often.

Clearly, the highlands of Yemen are strategically crucial to the protection of vital American interests in the, uh, qat trade, so send in the Marines!

Because we invite the world, we must invade the world!

Carpetbagger-Tyler wasn't complaining about the lack of English, rather he was painting a picture of the country. It is a rare country in the world where the best hotel has no European language speakers. To not mention that would be to not mention something interesting.

I started school in Aden in 1958 - still remember the school bus with an armed guard and barbed wire on the windows to prevent grenades being thrown in - depressing to see that nothing much seems to have changed 50 years later. (And no, it's not our fault...)

sounds like one incredible f**khole

WRT Qat, my friends and I were very thankful that alcohol is taboo there. Yemen would truly be terrifying with widespread drinking!


I was in Sana'a this summer teaching Radio Drama, and I found the Yemenis to be a very hospitable people. Qat is a HUGE problem in Yemeni society. The daily cycle runs something like this, morning the Qat is harvested, (because it loses potency as it dries) It rolls into the markets of Sana'a by about 11-12pm, Stores and government offices shut down at 1pm, and the Qat chew starts,some shops may open back up at 4pm till 8pm, but mostly they just chew Qat the rest of the day. Qat is central to the society. I was invited to several Qat chews, with several government officials during my month and a half stay, they were a way to socialize and discuss our project.

IIRC, I would compare Qat to chewing on coca leaves, or cocaine. It is more mental and euphoric. Ecstasy was always a way more intense body high and euphoria.

A Harvard professor of anthropology, Steve Caton, wrote an interesting book called The Yemen Chronicles; an impressionistic meditation of tribal misunderstandings, war and village life as mediated by mores and poetry. It's been a few years since I read it, but as I recall it conveyed the particularistic grit of Yemeni life--the idea of a modern, functioning nation state is practically a category error. Pale flickerings on the cave wall, I know, since I lack direct experience.

The 'most amazing architecture I have seen, anywhere' claim has me scratching my head. I'm not sure that would even make my top 50 list.

"Despite the incredible unemployment, you will see foreigners staffing the hotels, bowling alleys, and doing all of the cleaning. Tribal norms prohibit many from taking those sorts of jobs, so the immigrants are actually stepping in where the Yemenis won't"

Hey, that sounds like the US as well! :) Our "Tribal Norms" prohibit many of us from being gardeners.

re point 3 - they all carried kirpan (a symbol of sikhism)? Interesting; I'd figured they'd be much more muslim.

The architecture in the old city is indeed amazing. Any one building is interesting, but all of them together is stunning. Some of my fondest memories are of walking through the old city at night...

Having said that, the newer part of the city has grown a lot in the time since Tyler was there. That is where all of the dynamism is, but it's an architectural wasteland. There are all sorts of bad incentives set up when a place becomes a world heritage site. The old city is wonderful to look at but it isn't nearly as nice to live there. If I were to go back, I would probably live off of Hadda or along Sharia siteen. It would be a lot easier to get to a real store, go to restaurants, or get out of town living there, even if the neighborhood looks worse...


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