Buying a SIM card for your phone in Yemen entails giving a copy of the picture page and visa stamp of your passport to the store-owner which he presumably passes along to the appropriate authorities, and filling out an application form which must be stamped with your left thumbprint. A phone call is then made to some mysterious entity and only then do you get your cellphone number. One assumes in these disturbing times, that the Yemeni government wants to keep tabs on who’s who. (It is interesting to note which countries keep close tabs on such things. In Algeria, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria you pay cash and trundle off with the new SIM and phone number, nary a piece of paperwork in sight. In Tunisia, Libya and Yemen your passport is required and recorded. I cannot quite find the common thread there.....) The good news is that the SIM card and a charge card costs the grand total of $12. Email is also very cheap here at 50 cents an hour (100 Yemeni Riyals) for relatively fast connection, with internet cafes everywhere in the major cities.
A view of Old Sana'a from the rooftop of one of the city's many samsarahs.
Sana’a has a long history. It is said to have been founded by Shem, son of Noah. Arabs are descended from Shem, hence the term Semitic......Arabs, like their Jewish brethren, are a Semitic people - a little known fact, especially in the US where the term ‘Semitic’ has come to be associated exclusively with Jews - an absurd, but by now well-established, nonsense.
Yemenis or South Arabians, are often considered to be ‘pure’ Arabs, being descended from Qahtan, (associated with Joktan a descendant of Shem, in the book of Genesis), while ‘northern Arabians’ are descended from Ishmael, son of Abraham and Hagar. (Adnan, who was mentioned in an earlier post as father of north Arabians, is a descendant of Ishmael.) The term ‘Arab’ seems to have been recorded in written records for the first time in Assyrian texts dating back to 853BC. There may be frequent reference to lineage in the coming posts and this is because it is extremely important in Bedouin or 'pure' Arab culture. But as Ibn Battuta would say, "but we will talk of this later."
Like other areas of the Arabian peninsula, Christianity was well established in Yemen by the mid-4th century but the last Himyarite King, Dhu Nuwas, who ruled from 495-525AD converted to Judaism and began to persecute Christians, culminating in the massacre of the entire Christian population of Najran, now in SW Saudi Arabia. The Byzantines, both affronted and powerless, asked their fellow Christian Ethiopians to attack Yemen to protect the remnants of the Christians, which they did under the Axumite General, Abraha. He destroyed the Himyarite regime and installed himself as ruler, but the Yemenis asked the Persians for help in ousting the Ethiopians, and by 575AD they were installed as governors.
Judaism has lengthy roots in Yemen and although it is not known exactly when it was established, it is assumed that after the destruction of the Temple in 70AD, some Jews made their way south to Yemen. Until 1948, there was a strong Jewish community but today the numbers are reduced to only a few hundred, mainly in the north in Sa’ada. Christianity did not fare so well - one of the reasons it did not take root long enough to survive in depth the coming of Islam, was the Byzantine Church’s heavy handedness in dealing with what it considered its heretical elements, i.e. the monotheistic creed that was embraced by many of the Eastern churches. When the Muslims marched out of Arabia into neighboring lands not requiring - indeed initially not even wanting - their subjects to convert, paradoxically many elected not only to live under Muslim rule which was more benign than that of Constantinople, but to convert. (The benefit of conversion was exemption from the tax that all non-Muslims paid.)
But back to present-day Sana’a. The open-air medieval souk is the heart of old Sana’a. Now called Souk al-Milh, or Salt Souk, this name used to refer only to the segment of the souk designated for that trade - in years gone by 40 trades were conducted in the souk.
Creating some small metal part the old-fashioned way - no protective clothing in sight...
Nowadays you can still find metalworkers, jambiya makers, carpenters and potters at work in their tiny shops while in the retail section of the souk are spices, dates, tobacco, coffee, tea, perfumes, incense, silver, jambiyyas and embroidered belts, basketry, jewelry, textiles, and household items. In former times goods arrived on camelback to a samsarah or khan where they were bought from local merchants - some of those samsarahs have been converted into art galleries although a few are still used for storage.
As for the tower houses of old Sana’a, the most iconic in the country is in Wadi Dahr, Beit al-Hajjar. Located on a limestone outcrop north of the capital it was originally built in the 18th century but was renovated in the 1930s as a summer residence for Imam Yahya. It is still used by the government for official functions.
It has all the components of a traditional tower house; several storeys of gypsum-traced windows, extravagant colored glass qamariyya windows, and shubaq, the protruding encased window ledge used for keeping meat and dairy products cool in the days before refrigeration.
The most famous house in Yemen - Beit al-Hajjar in Wadi Dahr, near the capital.
I had been hospitably entertained in a tower house in the old City currently being rented by a friend - all five storeys of it. Now I was about to go off into the wilds of Yemen with Abdullah Khawlani, driver and trusted friend. It promised to be memorable... Abdullah does not speak much English, although he understands far more than he lets on, and my Arabic is execrable especially when I have to translate pages of text relating to the 14th century, text that dwells on matters most sensible people have long ago left off thinking about. Back on the trail of Ibn Battuta who landed in northern Yemen by boat, I am doing no such thing - I am traveling in a Land Cruiser from Sana’a. But first I had to visit the pharmacy - it is the rainy season, albeit the short one, and as I am going to be spending some time on the coast where the climate is noxious at the best of times and mosquitoes abound, a dose of malaria would be tiresome even if Sana’a does have some perfectly good hospitals now. In Yemen as in many Middle Eastern countries, you can buy most drugs over the counter for a fraction of the cost you pay at home, so here's to $2 Larium and hypnotic dreams......