There were plenty of people who warned us off going to Yemen, but we chose to ignore them - and discovered an architectural wonder forgotten by time, plus a whole lot of fun
Despite warnings from absolutely everyone about potential kidnappings and men who carry AK47s to breakfast, I packed my little wheelie case for Yemen, ready for a living fairy tale.
Flights were cheap from my base in Dubai – just a few hundred dirhams on the local carrier, Air Arabia. Landing in the capital, Sana’a, it was obvious that we were somewhere... let’s say, special. Organised chaos at the airport meant it took an hour to get our visas and clear immigration, but we were soon collected in a clapped-out taxi and driven to our hotel: the Sana'a Nights Tourist Hotel (the people of Yemen like to confirm their hotels are for tourists). Located in an old palace typical of the city, it was just a short walk away from souks, markets and mosques, and had a beautiful view (mafraj in Arabic) of Sana'a from the rooftop.
Tourists stand out here, if not for their milky skin and protruding telephoto lenses, then for their wide-eyed stares and wide open mouths. Most female tourists stay concealed beneath scarves and abayas, and it’s advisable to go with it, out of respect. This is, after all, a strict Muslim country. We rarely saw a woman who wasn’t covering everything but her eyeballs.
Lost in time
Sana’a sits within a mountain range and thus endures the temperamental forces of Mother Nature. One minute the sky is sapphire blue; the next it’s an ominous gray, showering hailstones the size of marbles on your head. It’s a city forgotten by time, yet time has taken its toll. It dates back to the Sabaean dynasty of the 6th century BC, and its multi-storey buildings of clay line the cobbled streets like gingerbread houses, with icing sugar paint outlining every tiny window.
The city has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years and wandering its streets felt a bit like exploring a living fairy tale. The characters are all here, too. Hansel and Gretel wearing dungarees, with smiles caked in grime, run at you from doorways, scattering chickens and startling donkeys in their paths. The scary grandma sits huddled over piles of ripe tomatoes, her face (what can be seen of it) contorted by a cheek full of khat – a leaf that supposedly acts as an amphetamine-like stimulant, a bit like caffeine. I’m not too sure; it tastes like what it is, really – leaves.
It was pointed out to us, quite rightly, that when other ancient civilisations were battling with stones and grunting, there were people here in Yemen building and living in multi-storey houses. Kind of puts things into architectural perspective...
Out of town
As we left the madness of Sana’a with our local guide, Ahmed (father of our hotel owner), the pages of our fairy tale kept turning. We wove our way along perilous mountain roads in a 4x4, like a modern Jack climbing his beanstalk into the sky, and stopped to take pictures of entire villages cast into mountainsides. The ancient walls looked as if they might fall at any moment, yet children continued to race beneath them, playing tag in their colourful, doll-style clothing, squishing up against the bricks, chasing bedraggled goats, dragging the hands of weary mothers from shopfront to food stall, never once fearing their world might suddenly crumble.
One of the most impressive sights was most definitely the Dar al Hajar, or the Rock Palace. Constructed on top of a humungous boulder, this awesome building was once the summer haunt of the powerful imam. It’s a bit of a favourite destination for Yemeni families as well as tourists. The local kids followed us around as if we were members of a famous pop group (great for the ego, Yemen). "Surrah, surrah!” they shout. “Take a picture; take a photo!”
Stunning architecture aside, it was the people who made this weekend adventure what it was, really. I’ve never encountered such amazing hospitality. At the hotel, we were treated to a private dance performance - think daggers and dishdashas swirling on a bright red carpet - and at the end of the trip, Ahmed, our guide, took us to his house to sample tea and his wife’s home-made cake. Yummy.
We saw no physical violence in Yemen, although we definitely saw guns. We never felt anything but welcomed, safe, respected and altogether absolutely awestruck. From the gingerbread houses to the mischievous glints in the children’s eyes, Yemen is one fairy story everyone should add to their collection.