Venturing Into Old Arabia

November 2007: Yemen was a country that rarely made the news for any good reasons. If it made the news, it was because of a suicide bomb attack or war. And even in war, no one in the world seemed to care about the Arabian country at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. Before I visited Yemen, I barely knew about the civil war that had been plaguing the country for decades and that the country at one time was split between north and south and was another proxy war between the Soviet Union and West. But what really drew me to Yemen was that unlike some of its northern Arab neighbors, it wasn’t a country with oil wealth on display, fancy cars, Louis Vuitton purses and abayas, giant soulless sky rise buildings. Instead, its old Arabia preserved in its most genuine form. The men wore giant Jambiya daggers around their waist belt, many even carry assault rifles in public, buildings are made of mud brick even in the capitol, Saana, and the traditions have changed very little in hundreds of years. Yemen is one of my most rewarding destinations.

 

 

About Yemen

Yellow line marks the general route I took when visiting Yemen

Yemen is the poorest country in Arabia. It does have oil but not the endless supplies of the black gold that its neighbors have, and decades of civil war and political instability have rendered Yemen un-attractive to foreign investment into its oil Infrastructure. Yemen has many attractions but the places i visited on this trip were Saana, Haraz Mountains and Marib. The capital, Sanna is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities other world and home to mud brick skyscrapers. There is also the beautiful Haraz Mountains to the west with hilltop stone villages, and the lawless Marib District to the east, with ancient ruins dating back to biblical times sitting along the edge of the world’s largest sand sea, the Empty Quarter, Rub Al Khali.

Yemen at the time of my visit had just ended a cicil war between the Shiite groups of the north, Houthis and the Suunis of the south and capitol. There was an uneasy truce between the two and it threatened to unravel at anytime. There was also El Quaida groups that are present in Yemen and known to kidnap and execute foreigners. Kidnapping had always been a possibility in Yemen and for many foreigners it was part of the adventure since in traditional times, kidnapping foreigners would be away to force the hand of government to help pave a road or build a school. Captives were always treated like royalty and would never be harmed. This was before and in some cases still now but with the chances of being kidnapped by Al Quaida, tortured and executed, I was not going to take the risk and so we did our best to keep a low profile.

 

Saana-Old City

I flew from Dubai to Saana on Yemenia Airlines. My friend Evan had arrived there the day before me and was waiting for me. Our plan was to spend a week in Yemen, and we weren’t sure what we would be doing yet. We had a very loose itinerary and we figured we would decide a plan when we arrived. On the flight over from Dubai, I’ll never forget the vastness of the Empty Quarter as flew over it and all the shapes and sizes of sand dunes.

I arrived at Saana at night, breezed through immigration since at the time, there was no visa required for Americans. I took a taxi, a beat-up old sedan with bullet holes from the airport to the old town, where I met Evan at an outdoor restaurant. I instantly fell in love with old Saana. It was more than I had hoped. it really was a page ripped out of Arabian Nights. We stayed in a small room for 40USD/night in a mud brick skyscraper hotel with an amazing rooftop view out over the city. In the morning this is where we would go and have our breakfast and drink our coffee while listening to the majestic call to prayer being serenaded across the city. Life in the city appeared unchanged for hundreds of years. There were donkeys in the streets, break being baked in open clay ovens and men walking the streets with huge daggers adorned to their waist belts.

My friend Evan, who arrived the day before me met two young Ali and Muhammed, two local Yemen guys who owned a 4wd vehicle and spoke English. They were un-official guides but were willing to share ideas with us and help us. So, when I arrived, we all met and decided on an itinerary and price per day. We absolutely loved these guys, and they turned out to be a lot of fun and great travel companions.

 

 

Saana Old City

Saana Old City

Kids playing soccer in the Saana Old City

Bakery

Souq

Souq

Kaat market

Man chewing kaat

man chewing kaat

Jibya dagger

Man presenting his jibya, dagger

Haraz Mountains

The history of Yemen has always been a tribalistic, feudal one where villages have fought other villages. As a result, it was necessary to fortify a village in order to survive. This is why villages were built on mountain tops with a clear view of the countryside below to spot any invaders well in advance. Huge walls around the city would also add to the fortification. There are many of the villages throughout the Haraz Mountains and most can only be reached on foot. We explored dozens of these villages via a combination of hiking or by vehicle. The roads to access them were all very difficult and some of the roads were 4WD only.

 

Mountain Villages

Mountain Villages

Haraz Mountains

Some areas of the Hara Mountains are wild with no development and still home to native animals. Although all we saw were domestic goats. 

 

Mountain Villages

Evan and a villager

Village man

We didn’t see many women in public in conservative Yemen and when we did, we gave them a wide berth but in one case when we walked past them catching them off guard, they responded by throwing rocks at us.

 

Women in Yemen

Mountain Villages

People in Yemen were very kind and hospitable and by people, I mean men since we never interacted with women. In this village a man waved us down and invited us into his house for tea and lunch-goat and bread.

 

Man inviting us into his castle house

Evan and I

Mountain Villages

Mountain Villages

Evan and I

Mountain Villages

Mountain Villages

Police Escort

We decided to visit the Empty Quarter and camp with the Beduin in Marib. This meant that we would be driving east of Saana into a region considered unstable and dangerous. as soon as we left the city and arrived at our first police checkpoint, we were told we needed a permit from the police district headquarters. This meant waiting and negotiating with them for hours over tea. They eventually allowed us to pass providing we had a mandatory escort, which i don’t recall having to pay for. From there we followed a jeep full of gun clad officers into Marib District.

Our Police Escort

me with a police escort

The police in our escort were on edge at times. On one occasion, a man in a vehicle saw us and sped towards us at breakneck speeds only to veer away at the last moment. This seemed weird and almost as if it was a test run of some kind. Then an hour later, it happened again but this time a man on the side of the road in a vehicle that looked like it survived a bomb, sped up alongside of us as soon as we passed, and the man pulled up parallel to us as he tried to catch up to us. I pointed to him and alerted a police officer in our vehicle, and he was already watching nervously.  The police truck quickly reacted assuming this was an attack and our vehicle pulled over and expecting a detonation of some kind I jumped out of the car and backed away. The man pulled up to the police and instead of a blowing himself up along with all of us, he started to shake the hands of the police and they exchanged smiles and more handshakes. It was a strange encounter, but this was typical in a place like Yemen. In all likelihood he could have been a terrorist and maybe our next encounter could end differently.

 

Man who we thought was a suicide bomber

The further east we went the wilder the people and countryside. Now in addition to knives, everyone had rifles and assault rifles and brandished them openly. people were more tribal and fiercely Islamic, and this included no alcohol. At this restaurant we stopped at on our journey, we drank non-alcoholic beers, which despite being non-alcoholic still has less than one percent beer and after a few of them would provide a slight buzz.

Evan and I with one of our Yemen Friends

Lunch in Marib

Marib-One of Yemen’s Most Dangerous Areas

Marib according to the US State Dept was a terrorist hot zone and a no go for American citizens. Our Yemen friends were very careful in Marib and protective of us. Afterall, our Yemen friends were kidnapped here by Al Qaeda with a few French foreigners. They were help captive for a few weeks for ransom and lives threatened. Ali escaped and was able to send for help. French special forces launched a rescue mission of the French citizens in the middle of the night killing the Al Qaeda kidnappers and as a reward to Ali with the 4WD vehicle he is driving us around in now.  If anything was to go wrong, it would be here. Men walked the streets with assault rifles exchanging fierce looks with us and it just didn’t appear to be the friendliest of places. But despite the tough exterior of these men, I asked them for photos, and no one said no, and everyone was genuinely interested in us, even though I avoided saying we were American, since Americans after 9-11 in this part of the world are prized targets by some groups.  Aware of their appearance as terrorists to westerners, one man said after I took his photo, please don’t show people my photo and say that I am a terrorist. We are good people and not terrorists.

 

 

Marib Locals

Marib Locals

Marib Locals

Marib Old City

Marib Old City

Marib Old City

Marib Old City

Ancient Temple dating back to Times of Queen Sheeba

This temple is thought to be part of Queen of Sheeba’s Empire dating back to biblical times. it is also where a tour bus full of tourists were killed when a suicide bomber pulled up to them and exploded just a few months prior to our visit.

 

World’s largest Sand Sea- Rub’ Al Khali-Empty Quarter 

We traveled to the edge of the Empty Quarter and found some Bedouin willing to take us into the sand dunes for a night of camping.

 

beduin truck

Exploring the dunes in our vehicle

vast sand dunes of empty quarter

My footprints in the dunes

Empty dunes

Empty Quarter

The sand dunes of the Empty Quarter were enormous and at night we camped in the open dunes with a small bonfire. The full moon lit up the sand and exploring them was incredible under the moonlight and running down the steep slopes. We also had some fun shooting the AK47 of our Beduin guide at cigarette butts in the sand.

 

Shooting practice

me with an AK47

Our guide having fun with an AK47

14 + 11 =

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