Yemen: Arabia Felix vel Infortunatus


The area known today as Yemen was named by the Romans as Arabia Felix, a moniker that holds less truth in the current age.

Before 1972, Yemen, then split between the old British protectorate to the south and the feudal country of North Yemen, was closed to outsiders.  The north opened suddenly, and with that new window to the world, foreigners arrived in droves.  As a terribly poor country, well-meaning but misguided officials from a variety of international agencies moved in, armed with grandiose plans for development, most of which came to naught.  The Yemenis were a proud people, disdainful of central government, and treated these strangers like the fools most of them were.

The architecture of Yemeni cities rivals that in any country but the adult men’s penchant for wearing rhino horn knives has decimated world-wide populations of the animal.  Yemen is a true country of contradictions.  The population uses most of the arable land to grow khat, an amphetamine-like substance that takes the place of food and robs its citizens of  life’s longevity.  Nevertheless, it is not our business to judge.

Their music runs to the wildly frenetic, with lute-based instrumentals and voice accompaniment.  Their hospitality is legendary as is the severity of their violence.  In 1977 I hitchhiked with my brother around the country, braving rides with 15 year-old kids driving pick-up trucks toting AK-47s strapped to their shoulders who held complete disregard for traffic laws.  Hardly better were the foreign aid workers who sometimes gave us a lift.  Their dislike of the country was often painful to absorb during extended conversations over the bad roads.

We stayed in shabby hotels, camped in the ruins of Ottoman-era forts, and wandered the country at will and were almost always warmly greeted.

Somewhere in the south a British business person picked us up, and for once we departed the paved highway.  He was headed to a remote area to talk to tribal leaders about water supplies or cheap-labor factories or whatever English commercial salesmen do these days.  (We even met a shoe seller from London near Mocha when traveling along the Red Sea).  We wanted to get away from the main road, if the “highway” could even be termed as such, so we asked him to let us off at the edge of a tiny village, miles from anywhere.  Not knowing what to do with ourselves, we started walking along a dirt track at the edge of a planted field. Without warning rocks came whizzing by our heads.  We were getting stoned, and not in the sense that Bob Dylan used the expression.

Turing toward the incoming missiles we saw a small group of teenagers yell and pick up more rocks. We became frightened.  Had we trespassed on land forbidden to kafirs (non-believers of Islam)?  What would become of us?  Now grown men rushed to where we stood, immobile with fear.   We could have been killed and buried and our embassy (with whom we hadn’t even registered) would never have been the wiser.

But the men sat us down and apologized profusely for the behavior of their children.  With great gestures and loud voices they bade us to wait while women folk arrived with a huge picnic lunch, which we were invited to enjoy and share.  Expensive canned drinks were produced, pre-packaged snacks, and other goodies that these kind farmers could scarcely have afforded to offer.  Over lunch the men told us that the boys would be severely punished.   They pantomimed the act of cutting off hands.  I was horrified, as was my  brother.  Surely such teen-age silliness would not be so harshly dealt with.  I tried, again with my  limited language ability, to ask that the children be subjected to lesser sanctions.   Perhaps the adults were exaggerating their intentions,  perhaps not.  But the afternoon was a tense one.  We felt ourselves responsible  for the trouble, and despite the fine show of gracious hospitality we left the village depressed and walked back to the main road, praying that our visit had not resulted in the permanent disfigurement of any young boys.

But this was Yemen, a rough land with tough inhabitants who lived by their own code of conduct, and nothing we could have said or done would have changed their mind-set.


1) Yemeni men

The country today is much maligned for the governmental elements that support al-Quaida, but I suspect most of this is propaganda created for the benefit of the Western politicians who wish to use fear to control and scare their “democratic” constituents. I do believe that there are radical fundamentalists among the Yemenis, but most of the land’s citizens are more interested in their own lives and probably think little about the outside world.

I remember a lesson in Islam given to me on one occasion by a small boy. He asked simply, “Where does the sun come from?”  I said I didn’t know.  He then said, “Where does the moon come from?”  Again I admitted my ignorance.  He looked at me with disbelief and said, ‘From Allah, of course.”

When we first arrived in the capital of Sana’a we were quite intimidated by the chaos in the streets, the automatic weapons, and the rampant drug consumption.  But we soon learned much of this bravado was strictly for show.  The market in the city was a fascinating place, full of spices, bargaining merchants, and exotic (if sometimes illegal) goods.

2) The entrance to the old city, Sana’a

3) Khat trader, Sana’a

Prices in the Sana’a market gravitated to the expensive side.   Those famous rhino horn-handled knives were going for tens of thousands of dollars, although I would not have been tempted to buy one at any price.  We also saw plenty of jewelry of uncertain provenance, but were not knowledgeable enough to consider purchases.  I did buy an old silver gunpowder pouch, but its current whereabouts thirty years later are a mystery.

Obtaining food was always an issue.  What few restaurants we found looked like grubby dens, and served mostly unidentifiable gruel.  We ate a lot of hard-boiled eggs and flat bread with cheese as viable alternatives. This held true almost everywhere we journeyed although fresh fruit was available in the lowlands around the sweltering city of Hoddaida, and most Yemenis were fans of that delicious sugary fruit “juice” and offered it as a matter of course for hospitality’s sake.

But again, what always astonishes the first-time visitor is the architecture found in Sana’a and the other major towns.

4) Centuries ago, the Yemenis became masters at building multi-story houses of mud and stone

One of the most amazing buildings is fifteen kilometers from Sana’a and is a former palace of the Imam Yahya.  Located in Wadi Dahr, the tower was built on top of a high rock for protective reasons.  The locals grow a lot of khat nearby, and we had fun watching them climb the trees, shouting to each other in glee when they found a particularly potent branch of the stuff.

5) Dar al-Hajar, Wadi Dahr

Especially interesting is the portal near the top of the house, from where night soil was dumped over the years, staining the walls an interesting shade of brown and yellow.  Not the most hygienic system, but it  functioned well enough for the purpose.

Near Wadi Dahr I had another instructive conversation with a local fellow, this time about the moon.  Nixon’s administration had given Yemen, along with all the countries on Earth, a moon rock, which they proudly displayed in the main museum of Sana’a.  (Recent studies have found that many of these “gifts”  were fake.  I especially wonder about the sample, which now rests in Hanoi, that the American government bestowed on the government of South Vietnam.)

In the event, we began to discuss the moon launches.  The man asked me, “So, we hear Americans went to the moon. Is this true?”

“It is,” I said.

“Well, we hear the project was filmed in Hollywood.  But if the story is true, what did they find there?”

“I’m quite sure the landing on the moon was real, not that they found much.  You must know one of the moon rocks is in Sana’a.”

“So they found nothing?”

“If you want put it that way,” I said.

“Hah,” he replied.  “It is just as is written in the Koran.  The only life in the universe is here on Earth.  Americans waste all that money, and for what?  To bring back rocks.  We have plenty of them here.” He laughed without mirth. ” You people have no sense.  Money should be given to poor countries like Yemen so we can improve our lives.”

Again, I was at a loss for words, confronted with a logic that could not be refuted with my limited understanding of Arabic.  This kind of exchange became the norm during my time in Yemen, and I was often flustered by the implacable belief system, although I did my best not to show uncertainty.  One always has to maintain face in these situations and countries.

On another occasion, we decided to thumb to Taiz, hoping to see that beautiful city first brought to the world’s attention by Ibn Battuta.

6) Minaret

We didn’t have time to get there before dark, and so asked our driver to drop us off at the bottom of an imposing hill, on top of which was an abandoned castle – one of the series of those fortifications I later learned was built by the Ottomans in their stupid,  futile attempt to control the country.

7) Ottoman-era fort

We made our way up the hill to the stone fort.  Inside the building the architecture was beautiful, with graceful archways and a stone courtyard, in the middle of which a pleasant pool and fountain had once provided soldiers respite from the heat.  We settled our sleeping bags under a covered cloister, and just after sunset thousands of bats, awakened either by us or by their nightly urge to hunt, swooped and swarmed around us in huge swarms.  At first we were alarmed, but the bats meant no harm; they exhibited natural curiosity only.  Of course nowadays the medical world says they are frequent carriers of rabies, but since none of them chose to bite us we didn’t find out if this bunch carried that peculiar affliction.

8) area around Taiz

But now we must come to problem that Yemen represents in its modern incarnation.  The media tell us of disaffected Muslims, anxious to kidnap foreigners while at the same time disdaining well-meant aid.  We hear that the increase of khat production, the bush being a thirsty one, is rapidly depleting aquifers that will be necessary for future agricultural production, given the current explosion in population growth.  Statesmen pontificate, the Saudis bribe, and various countries, notably China, covet Yemen’s proximity to the Red Sea and the crude oil passageways.

None of these facts mean shit to a tree, to borrow a phrase.  The Yemenis are people who deserve to live, to be left alone if that is what they wish, and above all, they deserve to create their own future, free of Western intervention and attempts to “democratize” their tribal society.  They are an honorable race whose ethics we should admire rather than criticize.

The Al Quaida elements now entrenched  in the country have arrived as a direct result of decades of European and American meddling and deal-breaking.  From the first broken promises of Balfour after World War One to the recent American perfidy in Iraq, hardly an iota of respect has been given to the Arabian Peninsula’s inhabitants.  When oil was discovered  in the Saudi desert, dishonest Western businessmen arrived like flies on a freshly killed goat, ready to devour the sudden and unexpected feast.  Yemen, fortunately, was largely forgotten in the feeding frenzy; the north of the country possesses almost no crude.  But being untouched became akin to a two-edged sword.  The country ended up all but abandoned by the rest of the world.

Now in the post 9/11 age,  Predator drones fly and kill, Yemeni citizens have been turned over to the tender mercies of the Americans at Guantanamo, and the ensuing radicalization of Yemeni politics grows ever faster.

9) Yemeni woman, probably a lot younger than she looks

Does the country need Delta Force operators roaming the hinterlands with their newly-grown beards and clumsy native attire?  Does Yemen need the massive aid projects that create mountains of plastic waste and garbage, all paid for with Saudi slush funds and the IMF?  I don ‘t think so.

They are a strong, intelligent people who should be given the advice they will need to modernize in their own way at their own pace.

10) Traditional village south of Sana’a

Yet at the same time we romanticize the country in the same manner Rousseau yearned for the return to the state of nature found in the “Noble Savage.”  This attitude is little more than a modern form of racism.  The Yemenis need a better electrical grid, better government services, schools, and a list of amenities too long to document here.

God help them, and God help us for our shabby mistreatment of a proud people.  We can only hope that one day the country will once again become Arabia Felix.

11) Sadeh, a town in the mountains near the border with Saudi Arabia, said to be completely off-limits to foreigners now, due to strenuous disagreements between the residents and the weak central government

12) The town of Thula: no sign of modernity

Post Script:  The year after my brother and I traveled around Yemen we convinced our parents to go as part of a group with Lindblad Travel.  As long-time friends and business associates of Lars Lindblad, they were among the first Americans to travel with a tourist group to Yemen.  As a favor, I provided Lindblad Travel with an English-Arabic phrase book, since Yemeni Arabic is far different from the dialects spoken further north in better-traveled countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.  Arabic-language questions such as, “May I take your picture?” and “Would you mind flipping the safety back on that AK?” came in handy on many occasions during my parents’ visit (just kidding about the second query).

During my first sojourn, I did in fact see two or three groups of European tourists huddled around one another in Sana’a, but the hinterlands were still completely unvisited.  The State Department warnings about travel in Yemen during the 1970s were as dire then as they are today.

One response to “Yemen: Arabia Felix vel Infortunatus

  1. Have you read the book Wanderlust? In it, the author goes to Yemen (she was in college at the time), and her take on traditional dress and culture is really interesting. Beautiful photos you have here!

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