My views on Yemen [Archives:2005/872/Last Page]

August 29 2005

By Peter Paul Muscat
For the Yemen Times
[email protected]

I am not a seasoned traveller and I had never been to an Arab country before my visit to Yemen. Moreover most articles, reports and news about Yemen mentioned the poverty, kidnappings, tribal warfare and strict Islamic traditions. Anything about Yemen on the media more often than not had an attached warning.

Notwithstanding all these hurdles this unique country fascinated me. I decided to dig deeper and meet real people rather than bland data and facts which people tend to glance at for one moment only to dismiss them in the next. I started asking people I knew about Yemen. Some encouraged me; others shared information and knowledge; others recited the it's-a-dangerous-country chant; most knew next to nothing about it.

Then I scoured the internet, newspapers and magazines and read reports from people who had actually been to Yemen or lived there. I also contacted some of them and we duly became good friends. We discussed problems I might encounter in Yemen, what to look for, what to avoid, what I'd need and what I wouldn't need – in short I listened to lots of travellers' tales. I also contacted an Arabic language institute in Sana'a and applied for a month's tuition there. The institute took care of the visa application and related paperwork. Meanwhile I set as my homepage so I could keep myself up to date. I also visited the nearest immunisation clinic to check about the any vaccines or medicines I'd need for Yemen. That reduced my apprehension somewhat.

Finally I arrived in Yemen and I immediately realised that all my previous preparation had not been in vain. Where others were shocked I was merely surprised; when others felt bewildered I felt intrigued.

Yemen is different from Europe. Its (equally old) culture evolved in a different manner, in another geographical location and has been through its particular historical events. Viewing the Yemeni culture from a European perspective would be unfair and unwise. After all I have dived into the deep end of Arabia so I reckoned I'd better go with the flow. I am a guest here so I must accept where I am. Doing otherwise would be, I think, sheer disrespect.

The first thing I noticed here were the people. Being a native speaker of Maltese (a Semitic language) and having an elementary knowledge of Arabic were assets and helped me accept the Yemenis and feel accepted by them. People go out of their way to assist me. Total strangers greet each other in the streets or on public transport. That is something which is now very rare in big European cities.

The first few days in Sana'a were a big rush of emotion. Coupled with the high altitude, they left me quite breathless. Gradually I settled down and began to observe and take it all in. The architecture in Yemen, and particularly in Sana'a, seems surreal. One can only find something like it in fairy tale illustrations. Evidently the Yemenis are inclined to beauty and decoration. This attitude is reflected in the intricacies of the stained glass windows and the delicate patterns of the local handcrafted items.

The natural environment is still present in Yemen to a great extent. Even city dwellers feel an affinity with it: the mountains, valleys, flora and fauna. The cooler weather in the mountainous regions also makes trekking and country walks very pleasant activities.

So why all those warnings about Yemen? All I can say is that so far I have enjoyed my time in Yemen. On the other hand I have seen many children and old people begging in the streets and have had people next to me armed with knives and guns. But poverty and squalor are also present in many parts of Europe. So are hand weapons, to a greater or lesser extent. Why should I view these aspects of life in Yemen any different from those in other countries?

The way of life in Yemen is not what I am used to but that doesn't mean one system is better or worse than the other. I expected and accepted this variety of living and shall return home, in sha'Allah, with yet another traveller's tale to tell.