Don’t judge a book by its cover, particularly if its title includes words like “war,” “terrorism,” “separatists,” “poverty,” “illiteracy,” and “kidnappings.”
Reports from Yemen point to separatists tugging at its south, Al Qaeda using it as a base of activities, northern Houthi rebels fighting a sixth war against government troops, a corruption-saddled economy, poverty, foreign refugees, dwindling oil revenues, and a largely illiterate population.
But the country is quite a draw for visitors, travails notwithstanding. All is not bleak in the land historically known as Arabia Felix, or “Al Yaman Al Saeed” (happy Yemen in Arabic), where thrill-seekers have ventured since time immemorial.
Sana’a literally takes first-timers’ breath away at an altitude of 2,200 meters (7,217 feet) above sea level.
The capital’s dry, dusty, polluted air – except for occasional flash floods – requires constant drinking to avoid dehydration.
A visit to Sana’a’s old district through a once fortified gate is a throwback in time.
Traditional mud brick buildings therein are no threat to taller structures (maximum 20 floors) a few blocks away.
More dangerous are pedestrians competing with cyclists, occasional cars, wheelbarrows loaded with merchandise, animals and vendors in narrow labyrinthine alleys.
Fabric shops, spices, perfumes, incense, jewelry, antiques, food (cooked, dry or questionable), traditional “janbiyyas” (curved daggers), handicrafts and the ubiquitous qat to which almost everyone is addicted, jostle for space in the old souk.
According to a guide for novices, don’t ask a man to show you his janbiyya [unsheathe it], because Yemeni chivalry permits it only to be drawn for use.
Yemeni ‘aqeeq (agate) is a must-buy for semi-precious stone lovers.
Needless to say, bargaining is de rigeur and it’s advisable to have a native alongside, even for Arabic-speaking tourists.
In another part of the capital stands the majestic Al Saleh mosque, named after Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh, with its six towering minarets and 44,000-worshipper capacity.
The edifice inaugurated last fall houses a Koranic and Islamic Sciences college that can accommodate 600 students.
According to Yemen Today magazine, the mosque cost $60 million dollars — an outrage to critics, given the country’s reputation as the poorest in the Arab world.
After a hard day’s sightseeing, visitors flock to the popular Al Beik Shibani restaurant and bakery for a traditional meal of freshly baked flat, round “roushoush” bread, spicy dishes and charbroiled fish or meat.
There’s no booze and tablecloths are rolls of plastic wrap changed with every customer, but the food is good, the atmosphere friendly, and according to an Arab journalist: “If you haven’t eaten at Shibani’s, you haven’t visited Yemen.”
A drive up unpaved roads to rocky hills overlooking Sana’a leads to Bait Baws, where even poorer Yemenis live, and where gays are said to rendezvous away from the preening eyes of their very conservative compatriots.
The weathered structures carved over the centuries by Mother Nature include houses precariously perched atop gnarled boulders etched by sand, water and a ruthless sun.
Students of El Greco’s chiaroscuro would appreciate the landscape’s colors against a backdrop of spiritual clouds, akin to the painter’s representation of Toledo.
In fact, amazing rock formations seem a staple of many parts of Yemen – a country noted for deserts, valleys, mountains and coastal areas.
Unfortunately, Yemen’s infrastructure is woefully underserviced, and roads to what could be exotic spots require sturdy four-wheel drives, indestructible tires and even sturdier staminas to withstand the rough rides.
Another seemingly endless bumpy but memorable trek meandering through valleys and riverbeds is the must-see castle and museum called Dar Al Hajar (Rock House) built on hard limestone jutting out of the ground.
Situated a mere 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Sana’a, Dar Al Hajar is an architectural marvel reportedly erected in the 18th Century A.D.
It served as a summer residence of past Yemeni rulers before being turned into a museum.
Writing in the January/February 1965 issue of the oil company magazine Aramco World, G. Lankester Harding said Arabia Felix (Fortunate Arabia) was the name chosen by the Romans for the lands on the southern fringe of the Arabian Peninsula.
“At the time there were many reasons for the Romans to believe that South Arabia was a blessed land,” he said, adding that neither they, nor anyone else, knew enough about that mysterious and unexplored region to refute or dispute the legends about Arabia Felix.
Those legends, going back many years prior to the rise of Roman power, held that it was out of the South Arabian kingdoms that the Queen of Sheba emerged in all her glory to confront King Solomon in all of his, Harding wrote.
The legends also said inhabitants of Sheba had amassed vast treasures–stores of alabaster, spices, perfumes, ivory, tortoise shell, precious woods, pearls and silks–which they occasionally brought forth in great quantities to exchange for gold and silver, Harding noted.
The inhospitable terrain, weather and occasional kidnapping of foreigners may keep the faint-hearted at bay, but itinerant archeologists, scholars and adventure seekers still flock to Arabia Felix.