Yemen: Manhattan Meets Grand Canyon in Dagger Land

Yemen: Manhattan Meets Grand Canyon in Dagger Land



What would you do when you get into a taxi and found your driver wore a curved dagger and kept a Kalashnikov next to his seat?  As Mark Lawson-Statham, a British banker, wrote, just as he had concluded there was little point haggling over the fare in such circumstances, he found the driver chewing qat, "an admittedly mild, but nevertheless narcotic plant, [he] abandoned all notions of being in charge of [his] own destiny and succumbed totally to his will."


Yemen, country/entity number 137 for me, is truly a country where time stood still.  On the streets of Sana'a, Yemen's capital, men walk around in flowing Yemeni-Arab robes and wear jambiya, a curved traditional dagger, on intricately embroidered belts.  No self-respectful Yemeni men, at least in the northern half of the country that accounts for 80% of the population, would appear in public without his dagger. Would you? A man without his weapon?




Up till a few years ago, a Kalashnikov slung around the shoulder would have been as de rigueur as the jambiya but the Yemeni government has from August 2007 begun a phased firearms collection programme. No firearms are now allowed in cities and firearms will be collected nationwide over time.  As I was to notice, tribesmen now have to deposit their rifles at checkpoints when they enter Sana'a and collect them when they leave the city – like people elsewhere used to deposit their belongings when they entered supermarkets. I wish the Yemeni authorities luck, for there are 60 million firearms in this country of 20 million inhabitants.  Given that 50% of the population are under the age of 15, one can probably deduce that every adult has six firearms on average.





I flew to Sana'a and travelled around the country for just under two weeks with two friends from Singapore, Kelly and Kris.  In Old Sana'a, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, mud-brick buildings five or six stories tall, with broad white-paint lines that made them almost gingerbread style, still stood as they did for the last 300 to 500 years.  Here, craftsmen sell colourful weave baskets in thousand year old Jewish caravanserais and mold jambiyas as their families had done for centuries. This is the photographer's paradise, given the pollution-free, clear blue skies and bright colours associated with crisp highland air.




Men walk around with their jambiyas where working their fingers on sms's. They often have a bulge in their checks – indication that they are chewing qat, which Yemenis claim gives them energy and reduces fatigue and stress, though World Health Organisation classifies it as a narcotic and many countries treats it as a controlled drug.



Yemeni women are a conservative lot – they are hardly seen on the streets, and when they do, they hurried around in all-black purdahs only with eyes revealed. In fact, dancing between men and women was unheard of – only men dance and amongst themselves, brandishing and waving their jambiyas to loud drum beats.  It amazed us when we found stores full of semi-transparent lacy lingerie and some of the most glittering and sensuous dresses for women, including those that even some western women would be shy wearing on the streets.  Well, Yemeni women do wear these, but only at home for their husbands or during ladies parties with fellow Yemeni women.


Yemeni women marry young, and many consider 16 for women to be an appropriate age to get married.  In parts of the countryside, girls marry at an even younger age. A report said that girls in Hodeidah, Hadramawt and Sayoun, girls marry at 8. In Mukalla, they marry at 10.  Yemeni women bear an average of seven children each, which translates into a nation with half the population under 15 years old.  Early marriage and lots of children often meant poverty and the inability to get children properly educated and fed. 




Another report in the Yemen Times said that given current population growth rates, the population would grow from the current 22 million to 30 million in 2015, 43 million in 2025 and 109 million in 2050.  Economic growth struggles to keep up with population growth. Poverty rate has increased from 19% in 1992 to 34% in 1999 (and about 50% today).  Yemen ranked 174 out of 184 countries covered in a world survey on human resource development.  The present and future look daunting, even disastrous. How is poor mountainous Yemen with limited arable land going to feed more than 100 million people in 2050? 




We explored villages in the wind swept plateau and mountains of the central highlands around Sana'a.  People still live in defensive towers made of mud bricks like those one finds in the Caucasus Highlands of Georgia or remote villages in Greek Peloponnese, while working on terrace rice fields or herding sheep on mountain slopes.  Yemen remains a tribal society where the tribe has deep-rooted sense of independence and commands the loyalty of the individual Yemeni, even to an extent much greater than the Yemeni state.  Historically, the Yemeni state hardly had full control over the mountains outside cities. How could it with the millions of firearms in private hands?  Heavily armed soldiers are often found in fortified check points along roads, or cruising around in Toyota pickups equipped with heavy machine guns, and that is what imposes state authority.




From time to time, troubles would flare up over land dispute or dissatisfaction over taxes and lack of development.  Over the last few decades, tourists have been kidnapped on a number of occasions by unhappy tribes in exchange for government concessions.  In most occasions, the kidnapped were treated with great hospitality by their captors and released unharmed. On some occasions where gun battles broke out when the government attempted rescue, tourists had been killed or injured, which is a prospect that continue to adversely affect Yemen's tourism industry which otherwise could have developed into a key sector.


Complicating the picture is the emergence of extremist and fundamentalist Islamic groups that finds fertile recruitment ground in a poor country with low literacy rates.  Literacy rate is only 50% and underemployment is evident – we saw bored young men sitting around in many towns and villages, with nothing to do.  However, with the low literacy rate and Yemeni inclination to chew qat all the time, employers often have to recruit literate and more work-conscious foreigners, such as Philipinos and Ethiopians so as to get work done.




In 2000, cells of the Al Qaeda attacked the American warship, USS Cole, in Aden, and in July 2007, gunmen attacked a group of tourists in the ruins of Sheba at Marib, killing seven Spanish tourists and two Yemeni guides.  The Yemeni Government blamed Al Qaeda for this attack.  How do you deal with terrorism when the country remains poor and many bored young people cannot feed themselves except with wild ideas of a better afterlife which, sadly, they believed to be achievable by bombing and killing innocents indiscriminately?


(Conservatism also meant most women do not work outside home and Yemenia, the national airline, recruits Indonesians as air stewardess. In any case, Yemeni women have too many children and need to stay at home to look after them.) 


Whatever it is, we experienced nothing but hospitality and warmth from the Yemeni people.  We visited ancient homes and shops in godforsaken towns and villages. In Jibla, we had tea with a religious teacher in his six hundred-year old fortified home, and played chess with his son. We took many pictures of friendly locals, who sometimes put aside any religious reservation they might have. 




Deep in a remote but spectacular canyon in a sub-branch of Wadi Hadramawt is the village of Al Khoraybah, barely a few kilometers from Ar Ribat, the ancestral hometown of Osama bin Laden. Here, we had small talk while enjoying the many desserts and sweets that a café owner and his friends gave us. For brief moments, we even contemplated setting up a backpacker ghetto in this friendly, cosy village, complete with cybercafés, shisha cafes, backpacker hostels and camel ride and rock-climbing outfits.


At the picturesque town of Al Hajjarah in the Haraz Mountains, we all agreed we found Yemen's most beautiful children.  We spent the better half of that morning taking photos of the handsome boys and pretty girls, and getting lost in the narrow lanes in this cliff hugging town of fortified towers.  Some of us contemplated half seriously about adopting children of Al Hajjarah for their good looks, while Kris suggested that I marry a local girl to bear children she could adopt, which is probably a legally simpler procedure than cross-border adoption.  I said I couldn't marry on basis of one's eyes, the only part of a Yemeni woman's face that could be revealed to anyone other than her father and future husband.  White clouds changed shapes in the clear blue skies while these crazy Singaporeans discussed wildly hypothetical adoption and marriage scenarios. Tribes of predatory birds cruised the skies for prey, while Noah-lookalike farmers worked in the cliff-side terraces of greenery that were qat meadows and vegetables fields.






It was Id during our first day in Sana'a (what we call Hari Raya Haji in Singapore).  All shops were closed except for the qat stalls.  Many men were sitting around doing nothing but chewing the notorious qat.  80% of all adult Yemeni men chew the qat on a regular basis.  I was given a few leaves to try.  It was a fairly bitter stimulant herb but I probably did not consume enough to feel more awake or high. Not sure why the Yemenis love it. Some Yemeni spend 30 to 50% of their income on that.  Indeed a small bag shown to me cost 5000 Rials or US$20.  75% of Yemen's arable land is taken up for qat production, and that consumes a lot of water, leaving most of Sana'a's devoid of underground water. 


While many Yemenis claim that qat keeps them awake throughout the day, I did not find the average Yemeni necessarily more diligent in work.  In fact, I have found many Yemeni in a state of daze in the afternoons. Half the entire country appeared at times to be hopelessly addicted, including the many policemen and soldiers at checkpoints throughout the country.  No wonder this is the poorest country in the Middle East and one of the poorest worldwide. 


The Yemen Post revealed that the President had decided to gradually reduce his consumption of qat, after medical tests in Germany.  It further quoted that the President "would also stop attending the maqil, or circle of friends devoted to chewing qat, in favour of meeting the people and personalities from the political and cultural worlds to hear their opinions on questions of national interest." I suspect more than a mental and social revolution is needed to rid Yemenis of their almost desperate addiction to qat.




I went to Marib on a day trip.  This is the capital of the ancient kingdom of Sheba – famous for its legendary Queen.   The region is currently in a semi-state of rebellion – it has always been so - and foreigners could only enter the region in military convey. During the 1962-67 North Yemen Civil War, Marib was a major base of the Royalist tribes opposed to the Republican revolutionaries who overthrew the Imam (rulers of the Mutawakkilite Dynasty that ruled Yemen from 1918 to 1962) and supported by Abdul Nasser's Egypt.  Traditionally, tribal disputes in this area were over resource allocation, but the Government has blamed the latest massacre of Spanish tourists in July 2007 on tribals who have teamed up with Al Qaeda. 


Outside Sana'a, the Bedouin tribesmen arm themselves to the teeth – Kalashnikovs, bazookas, ground-to-air anti aircraft missiles, grenades, you name it.  Police checkpoints were found every twenty kilometers or so, heavily armed too, often with machine gun-equipped Toyota pickups.  I even spied armoured carriers at some spots.    At police checkpoints just outside Sana'a, all visitors entering the city border had to deposit their firearms and then collect them when they leave the capital.


We set off early from Sana'a but had to wait at a checkpoint to the east of the city, for other vehicles to gather and do the journey together as a convoy.  When eight vehicles carrying tourists from Germany, Italy, UK, Australia, Poland, Czech Republic, Peru and me (as Singapore's sole representative) arrived, the convoy set off with a military Toyota pickup heading the group. 




From time to time, we would stop at military checkpoints where travel permits were examined. The whole venture may sound dangerous but the tension certainly wasn't over the top, as before long, the travelers were having fun exchanging travel notes and interacting with the friendly military as well as Bedouin tribesmen found lurking around these stops.  Like everywhere else in Yemen, they would ask, "Where are you from?" followed by "Welcome to Yemen."  Occasional bundles of qats were distributed, and at one particular police fort, we were even invited to join the police in an ad hoc dagger war dance!


Queen of Sheba, the legendary queen of what the Romans called Arabia Felix, or Happy Arabia.  The kingdom controlled the important trade routes for frankincense, spices, rhino horns and other valuable products, as well as the key sea route from Egypt to the coast of East Africa and India.  The great dam at Marib, an engineering feat built around 700 BCE, irrigated the fertile soil of Sheba. 


The Bible recorded the visit of the wise and rich Queen of Sheba to King Solomon of Israel, while the Quran said that the Queen was converted to Islam when she was moved by King Solomon's wisdom (Solomon being an Islamic prophet as well).  I found the Ethiopian accounts juicier.  King Solomon told the Queen that she could not take anything in his palace without seeking his permission. He then served her a very spicy meal but no water. The Queen, unable to resist the spiciness, drank a glass of water without asking for the King's consent. Caught, the King demanded a night's passion as the price for the water. The penalty was duly paid and a son was born from this one night's union.  He was Menelik, legendary first Emperor of Ethiopia and King of Kings, and the first of a line of monarchs that lasted 3000 years till the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Later, as a young man, he would be reunited with his father and brought the Convenant of the Ark to Ethiopia.


We visited the ruins of the Great Dam of Marib, whose collapse in 570 CE led to the economic and environmental devastation of Sheba. Today, the Marib region is but a dusty, desolate desert region on the edge of the vast Empty Quarter.  We also visited ruins of the Sheba royal temples with beautiful sand dunes at a distance beyond, as well as the eerie remains of Old Marib village, bombed out during the 1960s' North Yemen Civil War.  These were amazing sites, although one needs a bit of imagination and appreciation of the romance of the Queen of Sheba.  Whatever it was, it never failed to amaze me that the most enduring image of Yemen in the eyes of the world (if any image of Yemen does exists at all) is a woman who lived three millennium ago, in a country whose women's rights do not amount to much today.


And yes, please do remember to ask for permission when you have a glass of water at someone else's place.





Fouad, who drove us around Yemen, spoke mainly Spanish (as he dealt a lot with Spanish tourists) and very little English.  I had to dig hard from the depths of memory for what little Spanish I used to know when I travelled through Latin America during the first half of 2002. On more than one occasion, other tourists have watched us communicating in broken Spanish, bewildered by the sight of an East Asian speaking with an Arab in Spanish.




Wadi Hadramawt – a bright green valley in southeastern Yemen's rugged desert plateaus and bare mountains.  165km long and between 1km to 12km wide, this is a rare oasis of fertile soil in these godforsaken wastes.  Here, lush green vegetable farms, date palm plantations and fields of golden grains flourish.  Surrounding the greenery, on virtually all sides stretching as far as one could see, tall vertical cliffs as magnificent as the Grand Canyon marked the limits of the wadi.


The valley's fertility has long been noted by the Bible, Quran and accounts of early travelers, but what I found extraordinary was that Wadi Hadramawt was one of the major sources of the fabled Arab traders in the Far East.  From this landlocked, godforsaken land next to the Empty Quarter, native sons journeyed to the coast on camels, then to Southeast Asia by sea, established trade routes, set up emporiums of spices, silk, craft and exotic fruits and become wealthy landlords in Singapore and Indonesia.  At the threshold of World War II, the Hadramawti Arabs were the most important landlords in Singapore, after the British Crown itself.  (Their wealth declined significantly post-war, as a result of government rent control and property acquisition policies.)




With wealth from the Far East, the Hadramawtis built magnificent palaces and mansions in their hometowns, using the most common and natural material available – mud.  This remarkable cosmopolitan era faded with the declining fortunes of the Hadramawti diaspora and finally ended when former British controlled South Yemen fell under Marxist rule in 1967. Contacts between the old hometowns and the diaspora came to a halt and the diaspora became assimilated as Singaporeans, Malaysians and Indonesians.


It was amazing that the palaces built from mud, un-mud-like they might looked especially given their eclectic mixed Arab-European-Oriental architectural styles adopted by their widely travelled owners, continues to stand in this remote valley, although they are fast getting dilapidated.  If no action is taken, it would not be long before these monuments disappeared completely, washed away by monsoons or withered into nothingness by neglect and plain human ignorance.


The gem of Hadramawt has to be Shibam, a small walled city about 1 square kilometer in area, tightly packed with mud skyscrapers between five and twenty stories tall, built between three hundred to a thousand years ago.  Situated at the confluence of five sub-valleys, the city, often nicknamed "Manhattan of the Desert", is towered by even higher cliffs and rugged mountains.  Not surprisingly, Shibam has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982.  Spectacular beyond words, especially at sunset, this was the highlight of our journey to Wadi Hadramawt. 



The view from afar was fantastic, but we discovered a city of slums and rubbish as we walked on Shibam's narrow streets.  The open sewers, lingering smell of rotting rubbish, countless plastic bags scattered everywhere, goats and donkeys picking at what little edibles among the refuse, unwashed children kicking football barefoot despite the dirt and dust, and bored young men sitting in the city squares on a week day – these are symptoms of poverty and pathetic lack of economic opportunities. 





Everywhere in Yemen, one sees the portrait of a moustached, somewhat aloof man, whose eyes stared afar as though into nothingness.  Typical Third World strongman lookalike, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power since 1978, after the death of the then military leader of North Yemen, Col Ahmed ibn Hussein al-Ghashmi, when a bomb in a suit case carried by an envoy from South Yemen exploded.  President Saleh had ruled the country over a dramatic period that had seen a border war with South Yemen, unification of North and South Yemen, support for Iraq during the first Gulf War (which led to expulsion of almost 1 million Yemeni workers in the Gulf), civil war in which he crushed the rebellious South Yemenis who wanted to secede, Al Qaeda attack on USS Cole and other terrorist incidents, and now, what the Yemeni press called a period of national reconstruction and development. 


Despite being supposedly one of the few Arab democracies, the local English press reads like meek party papers (ok, not unlike those in Singapore, to be fair) that congratulates the President, of all people, of Id.  Imagine the New York Times congratulates President George W Bush for Christmas.  Sounds somewhat strange to me but that's life in Yemen. One particular congratulatory message called the President Father of Yemen's Development.  Yes, father of development for 29 years of Middle East's poorest country, where half the population is illiterate and unemployed, where 40% of water supply is used to irrigate production of a herb considered by most countries as an illegal narcotic, and where terrorist incidents occur at a rate of one every half year.  A one-term leader may not be blamed for such statistics but 29 years are a long time.



Guess who are the other most popular figures in Yemen?  Hint: Who's popular on the Arab Street?  Yes, Saddam Hussein by far in the first place, followed by Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah.  Their posters and likeness can be seen in many cars, shops and public walls, especially that of Saddam.  Photos of him in that dark coat firing a rifle, of him holding the Quran in the Court after his arrest by the Americans and final moments of him with the hangman's noose. Many ordinary Arabs seemed to see him as a hero and martyr.  I didn't see any Osama bin Laden posters around but Kris said a Yemeni lady shouted his name when Kris passed by her shop.




From Wadi Hadramawt, we travelled across Wadi Douan and its many pretty fortified villages and Grand Canyon-like valley. And into a high dusty plateau with little trace of human inhabitation, where we made a turn to a new cliff-side hotel overlooking a confluence of two wadis. Below was a magnificent but unknown village sitting on a citadel which was a little hill in its own right. God knows what its name is – it was in neither Lonely Planet nor Bradt Guide but what the hack, yet another unexpected discovery in this beautiful country. ( Fouad seemed to call it "Hasenah Wadi Aisler" ( ) but I was sure there was some misunderstanding in our hybrid Spanlish conversation.)



Al Mukalla, the beautiful coastal city, was next.  Once capital of a powerful tribal sultanate, it is today an important fishing port. Moved by its splendid whitewashed buildings along a curved bay flanked by dark magnificent mountains, a renowned early 20th century traveller, Freya Stark, called this a romantic place to have a honeymoon.  Yet, Freya Stark never got married, and it was said that "Freya, in her search for marriage was drawn to gay men in the British Foreign Service whom she steadfastly refused to believe were gay." ( )


We went on to Aden, the legendary and strategic city located at where the Red Sea meets the Indian Ocean.  In the old days of the old steamer, ships sailing from Europe to Asia via the Suez Canal had to dock by its yards, overshadowed by the extinct volcanoes that form its unusual geography. We stayed at a hotel in Crater, Aden's old Arab commercial district, right next to the souk, where once traders from Europe, Arabia, India and China once rubbed shoulders and did business over tea.  Great explorers and travelers such as Ibn Battuta, Zhenghe and Vasco da Gama visited Aden too. 



Saudi Aramco World noted, "Ibn Battuta… went to Aden, at the time the largest and richest of all the emporia on the Indian Ocean. "It is a big city," he says, "but no crops, trees or water are found there; during the rainy season water is collected in reservoirs. These lie some distance from the town and the Bedouin often cut the road and prevent the townspeople from reaching them unless they are bribed with money and pieces of cloth…." Has anything changed? Military checkpoints continue to guard the road from Aden to Sana'a, as rebellious and heavily armed tribes were never very far away.


Aden has a chequered modern history.  The British set up a coaling station here in 1839, which became an important supply base linking Britain with India.  They were hardly interested in the interior, except to ensure that the inland tribes did not interrupt supply of food and water.  Treaties of friendship were signed by the many sultanates and sheikhdoms in what later became known as South Yemen.



As colonies worldwide gained independence, the British tried to prepare Aden and its protectorate, as the territory was then known, for self-government as a pro-western Federation of South Arabia. Before long, a Marxist insurgency broke out.  This was no different from what the UK did in Malaya and the Trucial Coast, i.e., to unite groups of tiny chiefdoms formerly neglected parts of the empire for independence, so that they would not fall into the hands of increasingly aggressive Communist Bloc and their Third World supporters. In the case of Aden, the efforts failed.  The insurgency spread rapidly and one by one, the sultanates fell. Writing was on the wall when the UK Government decided to withdraw British forces from all territories east of Suez. The Marxists marched into Aden and the communist People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (DPRY), popularly known as South Yemen, was founded.  The PDRY was the first and only Marxist state ever to exist in the Middle East.



As a state, the PDRY was poverty stricken and hardly ever stable politically. Coups and counter-coups, a disastrous civil war, two border wars with North Yemen and a proxy-war with Oman rocked the small nation in its short history of existence. Soviet subsidies in exchange for docking rights at Aden port for the Soviet Navy were critical for its survival.  When the USSR declined in the late 1980s and with that declining financial support for PDRY, decision was taken in 1990 to merge with North Yemen.  Differences soon emerged and in 1994, the former Marxists declared South Yemen secession from the newly merged Republic of Yemen.  Federal forces marched down from Sana'a and crushed the rebellion in 9 weeks.


South Yemen is no more, but Aden, at least from the surface, looked somewhat different from the conservative north. Whilst South Yemeni women wear the black abbaya as well, most do not cover their faces as their northern cousins do.  More women work in public positions and many people in Aden speak English, which is a legacy of British rule.  We watched fishermen bring their catch to shore – shark and tuna amongst various fish – and dropped by the flashy new Aden Mall, the only modern mall of the kind in Yemen. Here, few wore the jambiya and nobody carried firearms on the streets.  What a different Yemen!



From Aden, we made our way to Sana'a, visiting the cities of Taizz, Ibb and Jibla along the way.  What a beautiful country with friendly people and spectacular scenery!


Having traveled for 28,300km (see for map) and 5 countries in the last three months, I have just gotten back to Singapore. In about a week, I will set off for the Caribbean. Till then, Happy New Year to all!






Wee Cheng