Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tihama And Transport Trials

I had dearly wanted to visit the north of Yemen, which is supposedly very beautiful and "authentically" Yemen, but due to the risk of "having troubles" travel to the north can only be done with a tour agency i.e. you need to hire a car and driver. Unfortunately I was unable to find anyone with whom to spread the costs (there aren't many independent travellers in Yemen) and so had to abstain from going there, something of a moot point now because a few days ago fighting broke out it the north and all trips by tourists there have been forbidden.

Getting around in Yemen by public transport, especially in the more mountainous areas where buses fear to go, is an adventure in itself. Generally there are two types of public transport. The first are share taxis, invariably battered old Peugeot 504's, in which resourceful Yemenis manage to pack up to 10 passengers. These can be rather nippy but can be a bit hit and miss as my last ride needed to be hotwired to get started. The other option are the hopelessly misnamed Toyota Hilux pick-up vans. A ride in the back costs half the price of a share taxi and gives unparalleled views of the countryside as it flashes by. The only drawback is that along with your lungful of fresh air you're also likely to get a mouthful of dust.

As you cross the western Haraz mountains you drop down into the Tihama, the coastal plain by the Red Sea and immediately I was doubting whether my decision to head south for the Winter was a wise one as I was hit by stifling heat and humidity. The Tihama is more like Africa than Arabia, in the acacias that dot the scrubland, in the round reed huts that can still be seen dotting the landscape, and in the faces of the local population, whose dark complexion and delicate features betray a long history of contact with their Somali and Ethiopian neighbours across the narrow sea. The speciality here on the coast is fish, which is a pity as I am allergic to fish and it would have made a nice change from ful (broad beans, usually mashed into a paste) and bread which is the staple here in Yemen. It's cheap and filling, but haute cuisine it ain't. Instead I did the next best thing and went down to the fish market in Al Hudayda, the main Red Sea port. It reminded me in its bustle, hectic activity and auctioneering of the fish market in my hometown of Aberdeen, however here the fish were far more exotic: 2.5m sharks, swordfish, stingrays and barracuda were among the few that I could actually name. In the middle of all this were kids with wheelbarrows running to and fro transporting fish from dhows to sellers to buyers and onto waiting trucks.
Al Hudayda being a port town there are a fair number of sailors and unsavoury types, which doesn't do much for a town's reputation, but it does mean that I was able to find some pretty cheap accommodation in a lokanta (doss house). And although I was charged double the going rate for a "room" (more like a cupboard) it was still significantly cheaper than any place I have stayed so far in Yemen. I only mention this because it reminded me of my last blog-post: the walls of my cupboard were plastered with pictures of Saddam. At least in that form he was more harmless than my room mates the mosquitoes.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Guns And Veils, Hearts And Minds

I've spent the past few days in the mountains west of Sana'a. he landscape is far greener than I had thought possible for this part of the world and is intensively cultivated with terraces, and every craggy outcrop that cannot be farmed hosts an old, fortified village. Walking through the villages is almost like walking back in time, if it wasn't for the pestering children demanding baksheesh! or qalam! (pen); the overhead power lines (every photographers' bane); and the ubiquitous posters of president Saleh, looking more like a nightclub bouncer with his thick neck and stocky physique. During my travels I have come to the conclusion that there is a direct negative correlation between the number of pictures of supposedly elected heads of state and the actual amount of freedom and democracy in a country. Another politician whose pictures are increasingly popular, especially on rear windshields of private cars and in restaurants, is Saddam Hussein. One would have thought that a secular dictator who attacked two neighbouring Muslim countries and butchered his own people would have been an easy figure to demonise, and yet with the catastrophically inept, and not to mention illegal, invasion of Iraq; the farcical trial and subsequent, vicious execution the Americans have managed to turn Saddam into a religious martyr. In fact ask any Arab on the street and the almost universal response is one of admiration and support for Saddam. It just goes to show that any dialogue there might have once been between the Western and Arab worlds has completely fallen apart and that the battle for hearts and minds has been well and truly lost. Similarly, when I pretend to be Iranian, Arabs are shocked when they hear me criticising Ahmadinejad because of his domestic policies because they think that everything America doesn't like must be good, and the way the Iranian government is being demonised by the Bush administration Arabs think that Ahmadinejad is the new Messiah. But such polarisation of political issues only makes things worse: the situation in Northern Ireland, for example, only improved when the British government and Sinn Fein sat down and started talking. It seems to me that politicians aren't good at learning from history. It's little wonder therefore that we have slipped two minutes closer to midnight.

Apart from the children the local Yemenis are generally friendly and welcoming, you just have to look past the fact that they are all armed to the teeth. Almost every male Yemeni considers himself underdressed unless he has his jambiya (traditional dagger) bound in front of his belly, and in the countryside many men have Kalashnikovs casually slung over their shoulders. In fact it is estimated that there are three handguns for every man, woman and child in Yemen, many of which can be heard on the weekends as guns are shot into the air to celebrate marriages. Possibly my most memorable experience was getting invited into a local home for tea as I was traipsing through a village. I was ushered up to the mafraj (reception room) on the top floor which commanded lovely views of the surroundings and given sweet tea flavoured with cardammon and cloves and some pastries. However, what surprised me most was the fact that the wife of my host, despite having her face completely covered by a shawl, was no passive dummy and was actively taking part in our conversation, possibly more so than her husband. It completely exploded the myth that all Muslim women who wear the veil are meek and suppressed.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Chewin' The Qat

A casual visitor to Yemen may be forgiven for thinking there is a horrible cheek tumour epidemic going around amongst the male population (possibly also the female one, but due to the almost universal wearing of the veil it's hard to tell) of the country. Many men, and even some young boys, can be seen with sizeable lumps in one of their cheeks. If one were to look more closely - and I wouldn't recommend it - one would realise that the protrusions are produced by a mashed bolus of vegetable matter. This, is qat. The leaf of the qat plant contains a mild stimulant and is the drug of choice here in Yemen (and, from what I hear, in Ethiopia and Somalia too) where everybody walks around clutching a small plastic bag of qat sprigs wherever they go. For many men the afternoon is given over to chewing qat, during which time they make even less sense than usual. But that's OK because you probably don't want to be talking to somebody who's chewing qat. Not because of the psychological effects of the drug, but what with the flecks of bilious green spittle around their mouths (and in their beards) and gobs of ectoplasm churning behind their teeth, qat chewers are not a pretty sight. They continue to give me flashbacks of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. In the mornings as you walk the quiet streets of the city you can also spot the tell tale little mounds of used qat on the pavement, looking like neat piles of composted grass clippings.

Qat is huge in Yemen. You can find it being sold everywhere on the streets, you don't even need to get out of your car to buy it as street urchins man most busy traffic junctions with bundles of the stuff. As much as half of all agricultural land is given over to growing it, a statistic that can easily be believed when one ventures out into the outskirts of Sana'a where qat plantations abound. It's not hard to understand either when a kilo of qat can sell for $10 whereas the same quantity of oranges, for example, will get you only a tenth of that. It has become something of a social problem as well since some users are spending over 25% of their income on qat alone, not something that people in this relatively poor country can afford.

It is impossible to spend any amount of time here without being offered some, and in the spirit of exploration and discovery I felt obliged to give it a try to see what all the fuss is about. My dalliance with the plant didn't last long as I found the taste far too bitter for my sensitive taste buds and so I spat the leaves out before getting the desired effect. Such seems to be the way with me, be it peyote in Mexico, coca in Peru, paan in the Subcontinent or opium in Iran (I could also mention cigarettes), the unpleasantness just doesn't seem to be worth it. I think I'll just stick to beer.

P.S. For those of you who are keen Scrabble players qat is also a very useful way of getting rid of that pesky Q when there are no U's available.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Gem Of A City

I wish I knew more about architecture so that I could write something meaningful and erudite about the old town centre of Sana'a and its houses rather than the trite platitudes that will invariably follow. As opposed to most of the rest of the Arabian peninsula where the population has historically been nomadic the mild climate of much of Yemen (due to the mountains) led to a more sedentary lifestyle which allowed for the various cultural accouterments that go with it such as architecture and ... other stuff. Anyway, architecture. The buildings in Sana'a, though tall, are not as tall as those in Shibam but more than make for it in style and refinement. Solid brick facades decorated with plasterwork in simple, yet graceful, geometric designs and, the adorning cherry on the cake, the beautiful stained-glass windows. The entire historical centre is remarkably well-preserved (one of the success stories of the UNESCO world heritage programme). In fact the only city of comparable size I have seen with such a stunning historical core is Prague. What particularly pleases me is the fact that even new buildings are built in the traditional style (if not using old methods then at least to look like traditional houses).

Luckily it's also a not too unpleasant place to while away a few days as I have bureaucratic hoops to jump through: more tasirehs, visas and tours to organise (because this time I'm not going to get away with trying to take public transport to restricted areas), and of course Sod's Law is making its appearance by making this a long weekend (it was New Year's day today apparently). At least it gives me time to read, fool around on the internet and watch some TV. Apparently satellite TVs are mandatory hotel furniture, even for really cheap dives, although for some reasons decent ablution facilities aren't. Ah well, different people have different priorities I suppose.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Dam That Was Great

As the road from Wadi Hadramawt runs westwards and the mountains fall away and the landscape gets progressively more arid until all you can see is desert in all directions with occasional dust-devils appearing and disappearing in the distance. It had taken a bit of running around in Sayun (the major town close to Shibam) to get on the bus. Not because the bus company was hard to find - it was right next door to my hotel - but because of the tasireh (travel permit) that I needed to get from the police. Upon arriving at Ma'rib, my destination, I was bundled into a police car and carted off to a hotel which was out of my budget and I refused to stay there. This had the police completely stumped as, theoretically, I wasn't even supposed to have been allowed to travel by bus there. Foreigners are only allowed to visit Ma'rib by tour. This is apparently for their own protection as this area of Yemen is notorious for foreigner kidnappings. Not that anything bad usually happens, generally it is seen as a quick way by locals of getting money and expressing grievances with the government and the victims are usually released unharmed, and often well treated, once the ransom is paid. (Regarding ransoms I heard a funny story, possibly apocryphal, about how a couple of years ago a Chinese deputy ambassador was kidnapped. Neither the Yemeni nor Chinese government seemed to care and after 40 days of being pampered by his hosts the man was released. However he had enjoyed himself so much with his captors that the man returned to them and they had to forcibly remove him, twice, before leaving an advert in the papers saying that they would never kidnap Chinese people again.) Eventually the tourist liaison department was called and I crashed at their office for free.

So why come to Ma'rib if it is such a dodgy place where you're not even allowed to walk the streets after dark? Well the area around Ma'rib used to be the capital of the Sabaean empire some 3000 years ago and home to the legendary Queen of Sheba. The Sabaean empire grew wealthy on the spice trade and the commerce in frankincense and myrrh. Now we've all learnt about frankincense, but what about myrrh? Brian's mum thought it was "a dangerous animal" and although that's blatantly not true, very few of us know what it really is. In fact it is very much like myrrh: a resin from a tree used to make ointments and also burned as incense. But anyway, not much is left from the Sabaeans except for a few ruined temples and palaces, innumerable shops called Saba something or other or Bilqis that (Bilqis was apparently the name of the Queen of Sheba) and the remains of one of the ancient world's greatest engineering feats: the Great Dam of Ma'rib. At its peak the dam was over half a kilometre wide and 7m high and allowed for the irrigation of a vast area. Unfortunately in the 6th century the dam was destroyed by a flood and poor upkeep. It is still possible though to see the sluice gate and the edges of the formidable dam on either side of the wide valley. It's just a pity that modernday Ma'rib doesn't live up to its pedigree.

Monday, January 15, 2007


The great Empty Quarter stretches across from Oman into eastern Yemen meaning that connections aren't particularly frequent. I had just missed the bus from Salalah on Friday and would have had to have waited until Monday for the next one into Yemen. No way was I waiting on my ass that long and so I found the road to the border and sat myself down to wait for a ride. I was surprised to see I wasn't the only one with the same idea. A Yemeni on his way back home from a 10-day spending binge in Dubai (as far as I could understand he had spent $3500 and had a flat-pack computer desk and a TV in tow - somehow I think most of his money had been spent on hookers) was already squatting by the turn-off. A lucky thing for me as there wasn't much traffic and my companion managed to sweet talk our passage to the border with a passing Omani, something I probably wouldn't have been able to do. Once on the other side of the border I had to stay 10 hours in the sleazy border town (it seems a universal trait of border towns that they are grimy, seedy, unwelcoming places) before the next bus would leave. Luckily I didn't have to wait that long before a friendly Pakistani truck driver gave me a lift out of that hellhole. But not only did he give me a lift, he bought me dinner, let me sleep in his cab, gave me breakfast the next morning and insisted on paying for my onward bus fare. And all I asked for was a lift...

So I got to Shibam, a place I had been dying to see for some time though I hadn't really expected getting here on this trip. Though not particularly well known the small town of Shibam is situated in Wadi Hadramawt, the largest wadi in Arabia (at over 200km long). It's a sort of "Land that Time Forgot" as the walls of the wadi are some 300m tall and very sheer with only 4 roads connecting it to the rest of the country and with a (relative) profusion of plant life and intensive agriculture, a stark contrast to the dry, lifeless landscape outside its protective walls. The town of Shibam is roughly in the middle of the wadi and with a population of less than 10,000 it would be rather forgettable; if it wasn't for its unique architecture. The adobe houses are tightly packed together to conserve precious agricultural ground and many date back some 500 years, oh yes, and they are usually 6-8 stories tall. Yep, they were building skyscrapers here in Yemen 400 years before the Yanks got in on the act. Sure you won't see sleek Cadillacs cruising the streets of Shibam, instead it's packs of goats that rule the roads, but I certainly felt the same way walking down the narrow alleys as when I first visited downtown Manhattan. And you certainly don't have to be a connoisseur of architecture to be blown away by the elegantly tapering buildings (slightly reminiscent of Tibetan houses I saw in western Yunnan and Sichuan) with their intricately carved wooden doors and windows. A true gem of a town and a delight to just contemplate from a nearby hilltop as the sun sets, giving the town a warm, reddish glow.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Jinns And Indians

Between Muscat and the Hajar mountains in the east and Salalah in the far southwest conrner of the country there is pretty much nothing. I admit I'm just assuming that because I was sleeping on the bus as it skirted the infamous Rub Al Khali (the Empty Quarter) which, on the maps at least, is exactly that. A place once favoured by ancient cartographers as it allowed them to be lazy and let their imaginations run riot with proclamations of "Here be Dragons!!" But the region of Dhofar, of which Salalah is the capital, is certainly very different from the east. For a start it's much greener because it gets brushed by India's Summer monsoon with a misty drizzle (locally called the khareef) allowing a greater profusion of flora. One could almost imagine being in southern India (except that here instead of having to watch out for stray cows on the road it is the camels you have to keep an eye out for), an impression reinforced by the large number of expatriate, mainly Keralan, workers. (I had an interesting chat with one such worker whilst waiting for a museum to open. He had been working here for the past 10 years and has a wife and two young children back in India who he sees only once a year. Yet he is happy with his lot as his children are going to good schools and he is saving for their higher education, something he, as a relatively unskilled worker, would not be able to do back home. In fact he seems to be slightly mocking of the Omanis who, according to him, are obly interested in eating, sex and having an easy life, but who will get a rude awakening when the oil runs out and they find out that they are not qualified to do anything. A point of view I am am prone to agree with from the little I have seen here. But enough of that, back to my rivetting description of Dhofar!) The place isn't just different because of its ecology, but also its people who are more likely to betray Oman's colonial past when they ruled over parts of the east African coast.

The Dhofari coast had been a rich and prosperous region even in classical times, mainly due to a single tree, Boswellia sacra, that only grows in the particular climatic conditions found in the southern Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa. The gnarly, unassuming tree lacks the physical presence that its fame would demand. The sap of Boswellia was used by many pagan religions in their rituals and its value was comparable to that of gold. When brought back to Europe by the crusading Franks it was named after them and called frankincense. Funnily enough, despite frankincense being one of the gifts brought to Jesus by the three kings it was the rise of Christianity that dealt the greatest blow to the frankincense trade as its use was frowned upon by the church because of its pagan associations. There are several ancient sites connected with the frankincense trade dotted around Dhofar such as Wubar (which I didn't visit as it's too out of the way), Al Baleed and Khor Rouri. I particularly enjoyed the latter, not because of the ruins (your standard low walls) but because of its site by a brackish lagoon separated from the sea by a narrow sandbar between two cliffs. As soon as I saw it I decided to spend the night there on the beach. It was a glorious place to just watch the waves breaking, or to read a book (which at the moment is The First Circle by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn that I have been carrying around with me since Islamabad), or to watch the abundant bird life supported by the lagoon: terns, gulls, herons, egrets, storks, ospreys, flamingos and plenty I don't know the names of. At one point three local youths came down to the beach for a bit of horsing around and I got to talking with them. When they discovered that I was planning to spend the night there they became alarmed and worried for my safety, not because of thieves, murderers or tsunamis, but because of jinn. At first I thought they were having me on but they were in fact very serious. Here in Oman jinn are not the kind portrayed in Disney cartoons and are still very much feared for the harm and mischief they can cause (Bahla is the jinn capital of Oman and apparently I was dicing with death by free-camping there). The only way I could get them not to forcibly carry me off was to convince them that I was on good terms with jinns and that ajnabi (foreigner) flesh isn't very tasty to local jinns.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

On The Road Again

I have finally managed to get my Yemen visa (once the embassy opened the process was quite straightforward) and am heading west to the border. Welcome news for Michael's mum I am sure as I am probably beginning to eat them out of house and home; and for me too, in a way, as the Pidgeons are far too healthy, regularly going on 6km jogs and roping me in to participate in a couple of "fun runs" (surely a contradiction in terms if ever there was one). As Henry Ford once famously said: "Exercise is bunk. If you are healthy, you don't need it. If you are sick, you shouldn't take it?" (Though perhaps he was trying to sell more cars with that statement.)

But before travelling through the wide, empty expanse of Oman's interior a bit of pottering closer to Muscat was required. Over three quarters of Oman's population lives in a narrow strip of land, perhaps only 100km wide, along its northern coast. And although the coastal areas, especially around Muscat, have modernised dramatically, only an hour's drive inland, through the Hejar mountains, the towns maintain a more traditional falvour. Every settlement is built arounda life-giving falaj - a traditional network of cannals, often dug underground to prevent evaporation, that channels water from perennial springs in the mountains and whose use and maintenance are equitably shared amongst the community - thereby allowing the cultivation of lush banana and palm plantations and even the occasional paddy field in the middle of such seemingly inhospitable conditions. And every larger settlement has its own fort, usually made of baked clay bricks and adobe, dating back to times of petty feudal squabbles and banditry. Sometimes, huddled around the forts, one can also find traditional houses, also made of adobe, with high walls and imposing doorways to keep out prying eyes. Though many of these houses have been abandoned and are falling into disrepair as people forsake the constant work that is needed to maintain adobe for modern, concrete houses with air conditioning. Sad, perhaps, but then I'm sure most people would do the same given the choice.

Oman also has an abundance of of natural beauty, from rocky mountains to deserted beaches, and green wadis (seasonal river beds) to bone-dry desert. Not surprising really, given a population of just over 2.5 million in a country the size of Poland. Unfortunately, again given the small population, public transport is infrequent and the best places are only accessible by 4WD, so I haven't seen as much as I would have liked. I did, however, make up for this last night when I did a spot of camping in a twon called Bahla. I don't know if I've already mentioned how expensive things are here in Oman, but there was no way I was paying for a hotel, so when I arrived in town after dark I started looking for a place to pitch my tent. I didn't need to look long as I found a lovely spot under the main bridge across a wadi not 500m from the centre of town. But nobody seemed to notice as it was well hidden. OK, I didn't have a great night's sleep, but I believe that had more to do with the fact that I've been pampered these past couple of months with beds, en suite bathrooms, sit down toilets and TV. Something that will have to change as I tighten my belt for the home straight.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Like A Sunday Morning

Oman is a strange country. Like its other Arab brethren in the Gulf its wealth comes its substantial reserves of oil. In the past 35 years the country has been transformed from a rural backwater to a thriving, developed country with all the latest mod-cons including swanky shopping centres, sports clubs and even traffic that obeys road rules (more or less), a very rare thing indeed. Apart from these exterior signs of affluence the first thing a visitor to Oman will notice is the number of non-Omanis. Expats are used to do the majority of the work in the country, from the Westerners who are brought in for their technical expertise; educated Indians for administrative roles; various south Asians (mainly Sri Lankans and Tamils) for manual work; and Chinese women as prostitutes.

Life with the Pidgeons (for that is Michael's surname) has been shamelessly relaxing and full of luxuries that have been unknown to me on the road: daily hot showers, fantastic food, playing recreational sports (Michael, his brother Steven and I have often gone down to the local sports complex to play squash, pool and even use the gym), having lie-ins, playing chess on the terrace, and getting driven around everywhere (thankfully, as public transport isn't very well developed here and Muscat is sprawled out over 40km of coast). I am therefore very grateful to them for inviting me over and giving me a holiday from my trip (it's surprisingly hard work fleeing a "meaningful" job for two years) to recharge my batteries, restock my belly and, not least, for making me feel part of the family. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end and soon I will have to leave my munificent hosts, though first I will have to get my Yemeni visa as soon as the holiday period is over (Christmas, New Year, the weekend and Eid al Adha have combined this year to make the embassy perpetually closed).

Anyway, I wish everyone a happy new year and I hope you've all recovered from your hangovers and have made worthwhile resolutions. I, personally, have resolved to return home some time this year, something that will probably relieve my parents.