Yemen: From a new perspective [Archives:2005/865/Culture]

August 4 2005
Corinne Levey
Corinne Levey
Yemeni Architecture
Yemeni Architecture
Friendly People of Yemen
Friendly People of Yemen
By Corinne Levey
[email protected]

The reality of Yemen is a far cry from the prevailing perceptions that exist on an international level. I found this out from spending time as an Arabic student studying in Sana'a. This realization lead me to wonder what has stained the international image of Yemen to the extent that tourists are discouraged from traveling to this incredible country? Indebted to my experience in this country I feel that it is my duty to try and show Yemen from a new perspective.

On the British Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) website, tourists are advised to avoid all travel to certain areas of Yemen, and to exhibit caution when traveling in Yemen at all. Tourists are warned against incidences of kidnapping in tribal areas, as Yemen is a tribal country. The list of precautions that travelers are advised of does not inspire confidence in a potential visitor to Yemen; and would be likely to warn off a British national considering travel in this area. It is not clearly emphasized that such incidences of kidnapping, theft and fatalities were not in recent years; and that tribal activity is restricted to specific areas, leaving a great proportion of the country as being extremely safe and welcoming to British nationals or foreigners of any other nationality.

Before my decision to travel to Yemen, I had very little knowledge of this country at all. Whilst studying a Modern Middle Eastern History course at university, Yemen had only been mentioned briefly, with reference to the civil war. So when I asked my Sudanese Arabic university lecturer to advise me on the best place for me to study Arabic during my break from university, I was surprised that without hesitation he highly recommended Yemen. He said to me; “the best place in the world to study Arabic is in the souq of Old Sana'a.” I was intrigued, and immediately hit the internet, to research my future destination. Ironically, only three months ago, a number of my fellow Arabic students at the University of Edinburgh in Britain, were advised against traveling to Yemen by members of the Foreign Office; and consequently, cancelled their travel plans. However, I decided to take the risk.

Whilst I was planning my trip to Yemen, from my home in the North of England, I found that the majority of people I spoke to didn't know anything at all about Yemen, some didn't even know that it exists. Yemen's low profile, as probably the least known country in Arabia, is particularly bizarre, considering Yemen's prestigious past, as the home of the Queen of Sheba, the 'Arabia Felix' of the Roman Empire and the launch-pad for the legendary ark of Noah. Whilst wandering around a bookshop in Britain, it is usually difficult to avoid the abundance of travel guidebooks, tempting you to jet off to some exotic destination. However, when I was looking for a guidebook on Yemen, they were somewhat harder to find.

The acclaimed 'Lonely Planet' guidebooks have not yet published a book specifically about Yemen, although they do publish guides to Saudi Arabia and Dubai. The only information about travel in Yemen that I could find was a small section in a guidebook to the Arabian Peninsula, and an even smaller section in a guidebook to the Middle East. Whether the shortage of guidebooks on Yemen is a result of the lack of tourism; or whether the lack of tourism is a result of the shortage of guidebooks, is for the intrepid traveler to decide.

When I searched on the Internet for information about Yemen, the first thing that I found was an article published earlier this year in the British newspaper, The Guardian. The article concerned the apparent closure of the British Embassy in Sana'a, due to serious threats to the safety of all British nationals residing in Yemen. The Guardian stated that all British nationals in Yemen had been advised that if their presence in Yemen was not necessary, they should consider evacuation. This was not an encouraging introduction to Yemen; however, my innate desire to discover the truth behind every rumour led me to Sana'a only a few months later.

The nature of my arrival at Sana'a airport gave me my first insight into Yemeni bureaucracy. I was welcomed to the country with a big smile and a handshake from the officer whom I later found out to be of the secret police, whilst he explained that without a guarantor, I would not be permitted to leave the airport. I realized then that restrictions on British nationals entering Yemen are obviously pretty tight. Luckily, my Arabic college was able to vouch for my intentions to study in Yemen; and was prepared to take responsibility for my welfare. It did leave me wondering, however, how I might have got into this country without having someone to guarantee responsibility for me.

Similarly, throughout my time in Yemen, any travel outside Sana'a has brought me into contact with the tourist police, who have wanted to monitor my whereabouts with distinct concern for my welfare. To a tourist who is not familiar with such a strong military presence or concern, this may be disconcerting initially. However, it does not take long to become accustomed to such outside concerns for one's safety; and to be grateful to these security measures, which make Yemen such a safe place for foreigners to travel.

As a woman who came alone to Yemen, I am included in one of those specific social groups who must take particular care for their safety when traveling in foreign countries. I have found that Yemen is a safe place for women to travel alone. As long as one respects the appropriate codes of dress and conduct, the only nature of special attention one can expect to receive is a warm sense of welcome from both men and women; and acts of gratitude in response to shows of respect for local customs. Many women have even taken the time to kindly alter my “Hejab”, if they feel it requires a little adjustment.

As far as the geographical nature of Yemen is concerned, you have only to flick through the pages of an edition of the Arabia Felix magazine, to be reminded what a beautiful and vibrant country Yemen is. The Lonely Planet Guidebook for the Arabian Peninsula refers to Yemen as being, “without doubt, the undiscovered pearl of the peninsula”. On visits to the Haraz Mountains (about two hours west of the capital city Sana'a), I could not fail to be enchanted by the mystical quality of the unique hilltop villages around Manaka and Al-Hajara. The views from the roof terraces of the old village houses are some of the most beautiful in the world and absolutely unique to Yemen's incredible landscape.

In addition to the incredible beauty that Yemen has to offer its visitors, this country also has an amazing history. From the inspiring life and reign of Queen Arwa, to the stories and secrets that hide in the alleys of the ancient Souq of Sana'a. The architecture of this perfectly preserved 2500 year old UNESCO heritage site is only outdone by the atmosphere of the bustling crowd who haggle for their incense and spices in one of the largest and best-preserved Souqs in the Arab world. Anyone from anywhere in the world who has a love for shopping, could not fail to be enchanted and entertained in this Souq of sensations, where scarves, Jambias and jewels of the finest qualities can be found cheaper than almost anywhere else in the world.

Yemen has quirks in its culture that could contest those of any country. The sight of cheeks bulging with Qat on every street corner was at first a bizarre sight for English eyes. Now, after enjoying many Qat chews with friends, whilst listening to the sounds of the prayer calls and taking in the beauty of a rooftop view of the old city at night. I will always respect the honour of an invitation to a Yemeni Qat chew. Of course, for the bohemian tourist, or those looking for relaxation over stimulation, the excellent quality of Shisha and the relaxing atmosphere of the big smoke are alone, an attraction of Yemeni culture.

Unfortunately all these attractions are only discovered when you land here. For considering the light in which Yemen is portrayed through international news, it is no surprise that the prevailing perceptions of the country revolve around tales of Al-Qaeda terrorists and tribal kidnappings. On the international news recently, Yemen was made to look like a war zone, following the recent price hikes. Images of burnt out vehicles, smashed up buildings and rioting in the streets did not paint a pretty picture of Yemen to the outside world. The following military presence, and the abundance of tanks around Sana'a did make the place look somewhat like a battle-field; and I had difficulty reassuring my relations in England that in fact Yemen had not regressed into its former state of civil war. The presence of these tanks, of course, actually assured the safety of Yemeni citizens and foreign tourists alike, against isolated groups of individuals who reacted aggressively to the hike in petrol prices.

So why are there such scars in Yemen's international image? Well, let's take a look at the international film industry. From the singsong Bollywood epics put onto the big screen by the Indian, Pakistani and Sri-Lankan film industries, the massive American blockbusters thrown onto our screens from Hollywood, and the martial arts master pieces brought to us by China and Japan; the medium of film seemingly promotes every country and culture in the world, to massive international audiences. However, Yemen's film industry is lagging behind somewhat. In most countries, you can usually find a handful of cinemas in towns of any significance, but here in the capital of Yemen, if you fancy the idea of watching a film on the big screen, you'll be hard pushed to find any cinema at all. This is because Yemen's film industry is practically non-existent, or at least it was until now.

This year, Yemen's first full length cinematic motion picture; 'A New Day in Old Sana'a', written and directed by British-born Yemeni, Bader Ben Hirsi, was released to an international audience. Not only is this Yemen's first feature film, it is the first feature film ever produced by any country in the Arabian Peninsula. 'We are giving birth to an industry', said the film's producer, Ahmed Abdali, in an interview with Arabia Felix. The film is set to be screened at sixty film festivals worldwide, finally bringing Yemen to the rest of the world. Although a step closer than before, Yemen is still a long way from pushing onto the international market as the hotspot for a budding film industry.

The thing that I have most appreciated about this country is something that is not reported on the international news, alongside the stories of Al-Qaeda networks and rebellious rioting; and that is, the fantastic hospitality of the Yemeni people. As a nation of independent, proud and witty individuals, this country could not be more welcoming to a foreigner traveling here. I have found making friends here a pleasure, not a difficulty; and working alongside Yemeni journalists has been an honour, in a society where they are striving against the limitations of restricted press freedom.

When I look back on my journey the prevailing memory would be the warm welcome that waited around every corner in the villages of Haraz. Families invited me for dinner at their homes, women dressed me up in their traditional Yemeni clothes and young girls painstakingly painted my hands with beautiful khathaab decoration, all to make me feel welcome. One taxi driver in Sana'a showed such appreciation for my wearing of an abiya and my attempt to speak with him in Arabic, that he bought me a garland of flowers and insisted that I did not pay for my taxi ride. I was taken aback by the hospitality of an individual suffering the after-effects of a petrol price hike.

With 45% of the Yemeni population living below the poverty line and an illiteracy rate of 54%, Yemen has a long way to go in terms of development. Many people recognize this; and it doesn't take long to discover that there are great numbers of educational and economical development programmes being conducted around the country today. However, for the people of Yemen to enjoy the future that all deserve, it is important that Yemen's international image is elevated to a higher status; as this country will need outside support in order to move forward in economic development.

For many developing countries, the tourist industry is their main source of income; but for Yemen this is not the case. An improvement in the levels of tourism would certainly help to boost this country's economy, making use of two of the world's most precious resources: natural beauty and charming people. These are two things that Yemen is extremely rich in. It is vital for Yemen's future that this country is no longer recognized as a hotspot for hostage taking, nor as a region of rioting, nor an asylum of Al-Qaeda members; but as a great country, with a vibrant culture and unique people who have an incredible past to be proud of and a positive future to look forward to.

As I return to Britain to continue my Arabic studies at the University of Edinburgh, and to write for the university's newspaper and travel magazines; I go as a committed ambassador for this unique country, Arabia's best-kept secret, Yemen.

* Corinne Levey is a second year Arabic and English literature student at the University of Edinburgh. She has come to Yemen July 2005 to study Arabic and learn more about Yemeni culture and society.