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.


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