I've been watching Michael Palin's Sahara series and people, I can tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, it's giving me seriously itchy feet! :-(. I've been in and out of the Middle East quite a few times over the years and seeing all the African mud architecture and Arabs yelling at each other brought back strong memories of when I was last there.
As I did when travelling through S.E.Asia, I did a lot of writing and so for your Sunday afternoon reading pleasure, I've dug up some old stuff I wrote when I was in Yemen at the end of 1998...
Yes, I had to look it up as well. Located on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, Yemen must be one of the world's most isolated countries, cut off from the rest of us by the impenetrable bulk of Saudi Arabia. Djibouti in East Africa is actually not all that far away, a short 50-mile hop across the mouth of the Red Sea although, of course, one has to get to Djibouti in the first place. And to the east, there is a land border with Oman - this was by far the most intriguing: it lies in the Ar-Ruba' al-Khali (or "Empty Quarter"), the largest sand desert in the world. There are no roads, no public transport and I was determined to cross it even if I had to buy my own camel and navigate by the stars to do it.
Believe it or not, Yemen was once one of the world's great super-powers, albeit some three thousand years ago. It was an important stopping point on many of the major trade routes between Egypt, India and across Arabia and was also a major producer of frankincense and myrrh. However, the rise of Christianity around the Mediterranean led to the abandonment of such pagan ritual fragrances and as the Greeks and Romans learnt how to use the monsoon winds on their voyages to India, the once great kingdoms of Arabia began to fall into decline.
In more recent times, the importance of Yemen's seaports reasserted itself, the south of the country being occupied first by the Portuguese and then by the British. It was only until the late 60's that the last of the colonialists were forced to leave and even then, the country was left divided, the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south going to war with each other at regular intervals. In the mid-80's, the discovery of Yemen's first (and only) oil field straddling both sides of the border between the two did much to help the reunification of the country and despite a few lapses, the country is once again whole. Nevertheless, marked differences remain between the north and south, towns in the south being noticeably more European, better maintained and with a higher standard of living than those farther north.
There are two things that make the Yemeni unique amongst Arabs: weapons and qat. There are an estimated 45 million guns in the country, not bad at all for a population of less than 20 million. Men and boys are armed to the teeth with one or more automatic rifles slung over their shoulders, supplemented with a full complement of pistols, ammo belts and jambiya, the traditional Arabian curved dagger.
The other Yemeni passion is chewing qat, the leaves of a small bush that gives a slight narcotic high. The chewed-up paste is not swallowed but pushed to one side of the mouth, forming a bulge inside the cheek (giving rise to the common Yemeni question: "Are you a lefty or a righty?" - most people seem to be lefties and dangle cigarettes out of the right side of their mouth, the nicotine giving a real kick to the hit). Chewing qat is very much a post-prandial activity and most of Yemen closes down after lunch as people crash out for the afternoon, chewing qat and smoking water-pipes. As a result, the Yemeni are some of the fastest eaters on the planet, lunch being a purely functional affair as the food is shovelled down so that they can hurry off and get onto the real business of getting high.
Qat parties take place anywhere and everywhere, on the floor in a shop, out on the street, in moving cars. It can sometimes be a bit of a shock to walk into a room and find a dozen guys slumped up against the walls, discarded qat leaves and branches strewn all over the floor, cigarette ash everywhere, goats poking around for scraps to eat although if you're taking part, you don't really notice it too much - pretty much like college parties, I suppose (even the bit with the goats - I'm told that we had some great parties back then).
Another thing about the Yemeni is their long tradition of kidnapping each other. Yemen is still very much a tribal society with tribes banding together to form loose alliances and disputes are often settled by one side taking key members hostage from the other. In these modern times, the practice has been to extended to foreigners being kidnapped, especially by the poorer Bedouin, in an attempt to force the government to provide basic services to the less fortunate parts of the country. There have been some one hundred or so cases over the past few years and while no incident has lasted more than a few days and no-one harmed to date, it was still something to keep in mind while travelling around the country. Shortly before I arrived, a group of European tourists had been captured and held for an unusually long time. It was a bit frustrating trying to keep an eye on the situation when the English-language newspapers only came out once a week but it didn't seem to be too serious and no-one really expected any harm to come to them.