Published: June 2009
By Eric Hansen
Eric Hansen finds that even an old hand has plenty to learn in one of the world's most mysterious lands
I first glimpsed Yemen on the morning of February 2, 1978. The sun was about to rise over the beach of Uqban Island, an uninhabited strip of sand and rock in the southern Red Sea. Shorebirds wheeled overhead and breakers pounded the distant reef as I peered from beneath a fetid canvas tarp to confirm my worst fears. The sailboat, perfectly intact, rested on its side on a windswept section of beach where it had been deposited the previous evening as a result of a poorly selected anchorage. Five crew members had been washed ashore in the middle of the night, and I was one of them.
Two weeks later we were rescued by Eritrean goat smugglers aboard a leaky dhow filled to the gunwales with 60 goats and their by-products. As we set off for the mainland powered by a tattered sail stitched from discarded fertilizer bags, I felt confident that this would be my one and only visit to the country.
Nineteen years have passed since the shipwreck, and after more than a dozen trips to Yemen I now realize that the first encounter was merely a prelude. Yemen is a country of surprises. Like cherished daydreams, the memories of buildings, landscapes, and serendipitous encounters with strangers have continued to lure me back. Every year, if possible, I return to visit a new corner of the country. I have hiked to mountain-fortress households lost in clouds, cavorted with schools of dolphins near the ancient port of Bir Ali, tasted $200-a-pound honey from the hives of nomadic beekeepers, and bathed in a public bathhouse built during the lifetime of the prophet Muhammad. I have even dragged a group of mail-order adventure travelers (grunting for diet Cokes and chocolate bars) from one end of the country to the other. But this time I had come back to show my wife, DelRae, the enchanting Old City of Sanaa, to visit with Yemeni friends, and to drive across the southern edge of the Empty Quarter to see the towering mud-brick buildings of Shibam in Wadi Hadhramaut.
Situated at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is distinguished by a range of jagged mountains running roughly north to south. This cloud barrier catches the seasonal rains, and throughout the year swirling mists obscure medieval-looking stone castles built on craggy heights. Terraced fields cling precariously to the cliffs, and remnants of tropical forests fill steep ravines that feed into the five major wadis (seasonal riverbeds) that irrigate the Tihama, a 30-mile-wide coastal strip bordering the Red Sea. To the northeast, the great sand hills of the Empty Quarter form a natural border with Saudi Arabia, while a rugged, volcanic coastline facing the Gulf of Aden defines the country's southern limits. Curious, turnip-shaped reed huts are found on the Tihama, but the most transporting buildings of Yemen are those Shibam skyscrapers and the gingerbread creations of Sanaa. Both cities are on the UNESCO World Heritage List and are recognized as architectural wonders.
On our first evening in Sanaa, I looked up my friend Martin Plimsole, an eccentric linguist specializing in Arabic who teaches English at the Bristol Language Institute in the Old City. We had met in 1988 when I was writing my book Motoring with Mohammed; now he planned to travel with us from Sanaa to Shibam in a Toyota Land Cruiser. The general plan was to retrace a segment of the old Frankincense Trail, but Martin also wanted to pursue his interest in collecting biblical plants and to try lakhm, a type of dried shark meat found in Wadi Hadhramaut. And I hoped to interview some master builders and mud-brick makers while we were in the Hadhramaut region.
Sanaa, the 1,500-year-old capital of Yemen, is set on a wide plain surrounded by mountains. The night of our arrival the three of us wandered through the Old City, taking in the smell of charcoal wood fires and bubbling stews fragrant with the pungent scent of fenugreek. Our footsteps on the rough cobbles echoed down narrow lanes dimly illuminated by alabaster and colored-glass windows high above us. By dawn the following day these abandoned lanes had come alive with a purposeful crush of shoppers and vendors buying and selling frankincense and myrrh, roasted locusts, handfuls of sticky dates, yards of fabulously colored and sequined fabric, secondhand sports coats from Europe, and woolen scarves from Kashmir. We strolled past buildings that looked like gigantic gingerbread cookies with white icing squiggled around the windows and doorways, and then stopped at the street of the money changers, where we sipped glasses of sweet black tea and counted out a small shopping bag full of Yemeni riyals. Breakfast was kidam (soldier's bread)— a nutritious multigrain loaf introduced by the Ottoman Turks in the 19th century. DelRae nicknamed the bricklike kidam "the Yemeni croissant" because we had one each day at dawn with boon halib— frothy coffee with milk that tasted of chocolate and cardamom.
For three days we explored the Old City before calling on my friend Mohammed al-Osabi, one of the most experienced backcountry drivers in Yemen. After agreeing on the itinerary and price, we packed his Land Cruiser with cartons of bottled water, blankets, a propane camp stove, extra gas, and food, and left Sanaa late the following morning. On the outskirts of town, I caught sight of a weathered signboard that read:
"Yet another fine example of the Yemeni sign-maker's art," Martin commented. We turned east, taking the road toward Ma'rib and the desert. Wind and dust in our hair, Martin pointed out the notable landmarks. On a mountain peak to the south sat the tomb of Job (the unofficial patron saint of all foreign visitors to Yemen, I decided), and as we entered the province of Nihem we stopped briefly to behold the Dick of Nihem, an immense phallic shaft of basalt protruding from a hill.
We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant filled with armed tribesmen. "The wild, wild West," muttered my wife as a madman with a DHL courier pack stuck on his head like a chef's cap welcomed us warmly, and three men equipped with machine guns offered us their seats.
Winding down the eastern slope of the mountains into the desert heat and the oil boom town of Ma'rib, we met Sa'id, a Bedouin guide who would take us into the Ramlat al-Sab'atayn desert at dawn. Sa'id was a member of the al-Sharef family, which has monopolized the desert-guide business since the days of camel caravans. The al-Sharef guides now drive Land Cruisers and hand out business cards with their telephone and post-office-box numbers. "Fax coming soon," Sa'id informed us.
At first light we were crouched by the side of a gravel road watching Osabi and Sa'id let the air out of their tires to allow the vehicles to ride over the sand without sinking. Sa'id checked the pressure with a gauge that he kept wrapped around the hilt of his djambia— the large dagger at his waist. Looking toward the rising sun, I could make out a confusion of tire tracks that disappeared into the nearby sand hills. These tracks would lead us across 200 miles of spectacular desert to the entrance of Wadi Hadhramaut— the hidden valley of towering mud-brick castles.
Sa'id slung his Kalashnikov from an inside door handle and motioned us to climb into our car. "Tawak-kalna ala Allah!" (We have put our trust in Allah!) he exclaimed as he stroked a rabbit's foot dangling from the ignition key. The engines of both vehicles rattled to life, and the journey to Shibam had begun. We crested the first sand hill, the gravel road disappeared, and somewhere in my head the theme song from Lawrence of Arabia began to play.Yemenis have nicknames for their Land Cruisers. The 1992 model is known as Layla Elwy (after a curvaceous Egyptian movie star), while the aerodynamic look of the 1994 model inspired the title Je-har Men Tahess ("The Backside of Someone You Like"). Mohammed al-Osabi drove an indestructible Abu Dabba; the name means "The Father of the Gas Can."
With only the shifting dunes and sun to navigate by, Sa'id followed the original caravan route that once linked the southern regions of the Arabian Peninsula with Gaza at the Mediterranean terminus of the Frankincense Trail. This route was eclipsed in the first century a.d. upon the dissemination of the Periplus maris Erythraei, a guide to trade in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. By revealing how the use of monsoon winds allowed direct access to the markets of India, the book spelled the beginning of the end for the overland trail with its bandits, inhospitable terrain, and local rulers and guides who extracted protection money from the caravans.
In contrast to the great camel caravans that had once headed west across the desert loaded with frankincense, gold, precious stones, ivory, pearls, tortoiseshell, muslin, and spices, we headed east with an ice chest full of bottled water, a copy of Plants of the Bible, by Harold and Alma Moldenke, a barbecued chicken, and two dozen tubes of lipstick from Walgreens. The air horn on our vehicle played "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"— but no one had thought to bring a map or a compass.
"They do know the way, don't they?" my wife whispered as we careened over the sea of sand at 50 miles an hour. Indeed, the drivers of both vehicles took full advantage of the ideal surface conditions by gunning their Land Cruisers up towering dunes like surfers on the face of a wave, then cutting back at crazy angles, wheels spinning, before shooting down the dunes to resume our meandering course across the desert. Somewhere to the south was the former site of Shabwah, which, until a.d. 220, was an important staging area for caravans on their way to Ma'rib, then northwest to Najran, Mecca, Petra, and Gaza. Every hour or so I had the drivers stop so we could hike to the crest of a giant dune and gaze out at the expanse of sand.
"Panicum turgidum!" exclaimed Martin as he spotted a bit of tussock grass. "They like a sandy habitat," he mused aloud.
"Quite right," I replied, looking at the desert.
Later, while we were stopped to fix a flat tire, Martin went in search of manna, the biblical food that fell from heaven to sustain the Israelites in the wilderness.
"Good luck!" I called out as he disappeared into the sand hills.
Many botanists contend that manna is the honeylike, resinous exudation of certain desert trees and shrubs, but according to the Moldenkes there are at least two additional sorts of manna: a gelatinous algal growth stimulated by night dew; and edible lichens that are blown into the air during times of drought and later fall to earth, littering the ground in great quantities. The Bedouin make a bread from the lichen, and this was the sort of manna Martin was looking for. He proudly returned with a cutting of a herbaceous woody plant and asked Sa'id if the Bedouin used it as food.
"Not even the camels will touch it," he grimaced, tossing the weed to the ground.
Five hours from the nearest road, we entered a wide gravel plain where the earth was brushed with a greenish tinge of vegetation. Camels grazed, and two white tents appeared through shimmering heat waves on the horizon. We were soon warmly received there by a half-dozen men and their young sons. After tea we passed around a battered aluminum bowl, sipping a refreshing concoction of leben (slightly soured goat milk) mixed with tomatoes, chilies, and salt. Chickens scratched the ground behind our backs, and a cooling breeze blew through the tent. DelRae was led to the women's quarters, where, minutes later, haunting ululations indicated that the Walgreens lipstick had been well received.
In the men's tent we discussed such topics as the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar in Saudi and Yemeni riyals, the Gulf War, and the price of brides and Land Cruisers in England and the United States. Osabi and Sa'id taught Martin and me a complex game, similar to marbles and croquet, played with pellets of dried camel dung. But within minutes the two were embroiled in an argument over suspected cheating. "Not unlike croquet at home," said Martin as the game ended in a spectacular shouting match. A little boy sold us a handful of 2,000- to 5,000-year-old arrowheads that he had collected from the desert, and then it was time to go.
We had been looking forward to camping in the giant dunes, but Sa'id told us we were going to a wedding instead. As we gazed on the expanse of desert, it seemed an unlikely possibility. But just before nightfall we arrived at a large tented encampment illuminated by bonfires and surrounded by dozens of Toyotas without license plates. In the women's tent DelRae handed out perfume samples from Chanel and in return was squeezed and fondled and kissed repeatedly on the crown of her head by a gathering of some 200 Bedouin women. Throughout the night they brought her food and danced and sang for her. At dawn the next day she was still wide-eyed and flushed with excitement.
After a late breakfast we motored over the dunes, heading north and then east until we came upon traces of the masabam— a series of mosques, shaded resting places, milestones, and drinking wells that had been constructed in the 10th century by the great benefactor Husain ibn Salama of Wadi Hadhramaut to guide pilgrims on their way to Mecca. We followed the wells and by early afternoon we could see the jols, the 1,000-foot-high sandstone cliffs that mark the western entrance to Wadi Hadhramaut.
As we drove, Martin read passages from Ronald Lewcock's Wadi Hadramawt and the Walled City of Shibam. Herodotus, writing in the fifth century b.c., had noted: "The trees bearing the frankincense are guarded by winged serpents of small size and various colors." The Greek geographer Strabo confirmed that these serpents were "a span in length [nine inches], red in color and could leap as high as a man's groin to inflict their fatal bite." This last comment kept us on our toes, but the only serpent we encountered on the journey had been flattened into the gravel roadbed by a previous vehicle.
At noon we reached the first paved road in Wadi Hadhramaut. At a roadside restaurant Martin treated us to traditional Hadhrami cuisine: sheep intestines wrapped with strips of fat, and tripe that had been smoked in a pit. The eight-inch-long bundles looked like greasy surgical gloves with the fingertips cut off and bound with rubber bands, but these morsels turned out to be very tasty when taken with spoonfuls of rich pilaf cooked with onions and ghee, scented with cardamom and cloves.
Entering Wadi Hadhramaut, I was eagerly anticipating the timeless architecture of a forgotten world. But the first otherworldly sight we encountered was a dump truck full of veiled women, all in black, wearing tall witches' caps made of straw. I was told that the hats were for keeping their heads cool, and for storing cucumbers and tomatoes during the day.
Several miles up the road, beehive-shaped limestone kilns belched columns of black smoke from their chimneys while men used clubs to beat the resulting lumps of pure white gypsum to a paste. They spent 12 hours a day making noorah, a lime plaster that is used to waterproof mud-brick buildings. The workers, burned black by the sun, wore sandals made of cut-up inner tubes. One young man spoke excellent English as he wielded a club in the gypsum pit; he told us that he'd like to become a schoolteacher.
We arrived at the gates of shibam at dusk as a deep orange sunset lit the valley walls. The narrow, twisted lanes of the city were filled with the peaty smell of dung smoke, sheep urine, dust, and kerosene lamps. Veiled women drifted silently through the darkness, and as the light faded the city momentarily came to life with the throaty protest of a donkey's bray. Men approached one another and touched noses in greeting.
When we checked in at the Shibam Guest House, the manager asked if we had any extra copies of Plato's Dialogues or Sin, Sex and Self-Control by Norman Vincent Peale. We regretfully informed him that we'd just given away our last copies but would try to bring him some on our next visit. An hour later, freshly showered and dressed for dinner on the garden veranda, Martin looked quite smart in a rumpled linen sports coat. We dipped into plates of hummus, stewed okra, and puréed fava beans fried with green onions, tomatoes, garlic, chilies, and cumin. Steamy rounds of pita bread were served with what DelRae called "a deconstructed Spanish omelette." A wedding procession passed outside the front gate. The sounds of drums and flutes grew faint, camels roared in the distance, and all seemed well in Wadi Hadhramaut.
At first light I hiked into the date groves. From the top of a low hill it was easy to appreciate why Shibam is considered one of the architectural wonders of the world. The 500-or-so mud-brick skyscrapers clustered within the city walls seem to defy all rules of architectural engineering. From a distance the five- to eight-story buildings appeared to be gigantic sand castles. But after I walked through the city and ran my hands over the walls, they took on the character of monumental slabs of clay that had somehow been tilted into place and joined to similar slabs to form buildings.
High above the grid of lanes, covered passageways connected the living quarters of several buildings. The upper and lower sets of small windows on each floor gave the illusion of a greater number of stories; only after we entered one of the buildings did the ingenious weight-distribution system of wooden posts and beams, in conjunction with a massive stone staircase, become apparent. As in modern reinforced-concrete structures, the exterior walls were only partially load-bearing. The inside surfaces of the walls were finished with a skim coat of lime plaster to which egg whites were once added to produce a highly burnished look. Though 7,000 people live within the city walls of Shibam, the streets seemed strangely deserted apart from the lively teahouse and domino culture thriving just outside the walls.
Shibam has been the capital of Wadi Hadhramaut since the third century a.d., and owing to the nature of the basic building unit— sun-dried mud brick— the buildings have been in a perpetual state of deterioration and renewal ever since. The oldest existing structure dates from the 13th century. One house we visited was only 40 years old but looked identical to adjoining buildings of far greater age. This is the result of strictly enforced codes that dictate the use of traditional designs, materials, and building techniques. It's thought that the city looks much as it did following the last major flood, in 1532.
The Hadhrami workers, like most Yemenis, are great travelers, and since the decline of the frankincense trade it has been remittance money from overseas that has allowed the valley to flourish. Workers and businessmen began migrating to India around 1220, and then to Zanzibar and East Africa in the 14th and 15th centuries. Because of the chronic tribal warfare and chaotic conditions in the valley, a new wave of migrant workers left for Java in the 16th century, and another for Singapore 150 years ago. The former Islamic-Marxist government of South Yemen forced the most recent exodus of entrepreneurs to Djibouti and the Gulf States in the late 1960's. (North Yemen and South Yemen were reunited under parliamentary democracy in 1990.) The success of those expatriates has sustained the economy of Wadi Hadhramaut and enabled the construction and maintenance of the buildings that exist today.
Exhausted by an afternoon wandering around in the heat, Martin suggested we retire for a siesta and then go out to dinner in Seyun, a nearby market town where he intended to order the dried shark meat known as lakhm. That evening we took an outdoor table at a café where a kitchenful of sweating men labored like galley slaves behind a row of thundering gas burners. With donkeys braying at the moon, and passing trucks wafting diesel fumes across the tables, a one-eyed waiter brought us plates of lakhm and rice.
Just as Shibam is the crowning example of the mud-brickmaker's craft, lakhm is the ultimate expression of the fish drier's art. Dealers in the market claim that after the shark has been butterflied, salted, and dried in the sun for five days, it will keep for a year or longer. It looked all right on the plate, but the first bite was sufficient to convince me that no amount of salt or extra time left in the sun at the side of the road could possibly diminish the distinctive flavor. It was like encountering a well-aged cheese for the first time, and the taste in my mouth reminded me how far I was from home.
Beads of perspiration rolled down my neck as I sat back and watched Martin finish his plate, then mine. DelRae's face wore a special contemplative look suggesting that, perhaps next time, she would put the finishing touches on the itinerary. I reflected on the allure of exotic cuisines and fabled places, then sipped a bottle of warm cola that had lost its fizz. Despite the spectacular drive across the sand hills of the Ramlat al Sab'atayn, the Bedouin wedding party, and the first mesmerizing glimpse of Shibam at sunrise, I thought, we had come a very long way to look at mud bricks, play marbles with camel dung, and eat lakhm.
It remains remarkably unknown to Americans, but for its architecture, history, landscapes, culture, and sheer otherworldliness, Yemen has to be one of the last great undiscovered destinations. The best time to visit is between September and March; high season falls in November and December.
The leading tour companies have the most experienced drivers and best-maintained four-wheel-drive vehicles, at a cost of $75-$100 per vehicle per day.
Universal Travel & Tourism
Box 10473, Sanaa; 967-1/272-861 or 272-862, fax 967-1/275-134.
Marco Livadiotti specializes in customized itineraries.
Box 1153, Sanaa; 967-1/331-531, 331-532, or 331-533, fax 967-1/331-534.
Food and Drink
Bottled water and soft drinks are sold throughout Yemen; although alcohol is prohibited, foreigners are allowed to bring two bottles into the country. Discover simple and delicious regional cooking in chaotic roadside restaurants that serve spicy barbecued chicken, lamb, goat, and camel kabobs with ghee-flavored pilaf. Try the Yemeni national dish, saltah— a fiery meat stew fragrant with the aroma of cumin and fenugreek. A picnic hamper can be filled at the city and village markets with flat breads still hot from the tandoori ovens of local bakers, imported yogurt, flavorful dates, and fresh fruit. The markets of Sanaa are an excellent place to buy the rare Yemeni coffee.
The capital city offers two luxury hotels: the centrally located Taj Sheba and the Sanaa Sheraton.
Taj Sheba Hotel Ali Abdolmoghni St.; 967-1/272-372, fax 967-1/274-129; doubles, $250.
Sheraton Hotel Sanaa Nashwan Al Himyari St.; 967-1/237-500; doubles $250.
Outside Sanaa, old family compounds and palaces have been converted into tastefully decorated hotels and guesthouses that reflect the traditional Yemeni style of building. Western bathrooms and hand-plastered, whitewashed walls with alabaster and stained-glass windows make for a pleasant night's rest after a day on the road. Check with Universal Travel for details.
Reg al-Huotha Doubles $40$60 with breakfast. This 19th-century family palace with more than 50 rooms is a first-class guesthouse between Shibam and Seyun in a breathtaking desert valley. It has a restaurant and roof gardens and is surrounded by orchards and date groves.
Reg Shibam Guest House doubles $10$15 with breakfast. Clean, comfortable, and just outside the old city walls of Shibam, this place has seven double rooms with air-conditioning, hot showers, ceiling fans, and private porches. It also has a restaurant with a veranda overlooking gardens.
The unofficial rate of exchange in Sanaa's Old City money market, where everyone changes money, is YR 110130 to $1. Bring clean $50 or $100 bills.
Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land by Tim Mackintosh Smith (John Murray Publishers)-- An erudite new book on contemporary and historical Yemeni culture by a man who has been called "the Paul Bowles of Yemen."
The Pallas Guide to Yemen by Peter Wald (Pallas Athene)-- An eminently readable historical account complemented with chapters on architecture, culture, customs, and wildlife. With maps and illustrations.
Motoring with Mohammed by Eric Hansen (Vintage)-- The author's hilarious account of a trip through Yemen in search of the diary he lost years before when he was shipwrecked in the Red Sea.
-- Martin Rapp
On the Web
Yemen Times -- Before you travel, browse through this on-line version of a weekly English-language newspaper.
-- Nicole Whitsett
Al Shaibani is the best restaurant in Sanaa for traditional tandoori roasted fish. You'll find it on Haddah Road south of Zubayri Street.
Despite State Department warnings (202/647-5225) ) and greatly exaggerated and misleading reports of hostage-taking and violence against tourists, Yemenis are hospitable and the country is very safe to visit if certain precautions are observed. In 20 years of travel to Yemen I have never met with any anti-Western or anti-American feeling.
- Tribal clashes still take place in isolated corners of the country, but those areas are closed to casual visitors. Petty crime or violence against strangers is virtually unknown in Yemeni culture.
- Hijacking of vehicles is an infrequent occurrence in remote areas. To avoid this possibility, do not drive a rental car on your own. Use public transportation or hire a driver and four-wheel-drive vehicle from one of the leading travel companies .
- Don't take pictures of people, especially women, without asking permission. Do not photograph military installations or armed convoys.
- To accommodate Islamic traditions, women should dress modestly. Long, loose-fitting pants with long-sleeved shirts are appropriate. In the countryside a scarf over the head will be a sign of good manners.
- Visas can be obtained easily from a Yemeni consulate. If you have an Israeli stamp in your passport, however, you will have to obtain a new passport before visiting Yemen.