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Yemen – don't believe the headlines

Aside from the United States, if there’s one country in the world presently making the global headlines for all the wrong reasons, it’s Yemen. But despite the bad press, Luc Jones travelled to Sana’a where he found hospitable locals, a nightclub serving booze, and a personal inability to get high on qat – the local drug of choice.

Our trip to the Middle East began with a three-day stop-over in Qatar to watch England take on Brazil at football. Thousands of fans from England, whose ranks were swelled by masses of English expatriates from all over the Gulf, had descended on Doha and In the pubs before and after the game when we announced our next destination – Yemen – we were greeted with stunned looks – nobody we spoke to had ever been there, or seemingly had any desire to visit, even if they had lived in the region for years or, in many cases, decades.

The afternoon Qatar Airways flight to the capital Sana’a was scarcely a quarter full, and my friend Tim & I appeared to be the only non-Yemenis aboard apart from the crew. The reports of Yemen being the latest Al-Qaeda stronghold, press stories of foreign tourists having been kidnapped (and occasionally beheaded) and the bombing of the USS Cole a decade ago had obviously put off all but complete nutters.

Yet Sana’a in the evening was what you would expect from an Arab city, shops and cafes staying open late with the usual bustle, only minus the western trappings – Yemen is the only country in the Gulf not to boast a McDonalds, but the local restaurants served up a fantastic dish of spicy chicken and rice, together with freshly baked naan bread and sweet tea. But apart from stuffing our faces, there was plenty to visit – in fact it’s hard to describe Sana’a without seeing it; you can walk for miles in the ancient quarter without seeing a new building, and Sana’a could probably lay claim to having the world’s oldest skyscrapers. OK, they are might not rival anything New York has to offer, but these are thousands of years old, yet fully functioning.

The capital’s national museum shows artefacts dating back several millennia and gave an interesting insight into the country’s pre-Islamic past. Yet the best way to feel Sana’a is to wander the streets, soaking up the atmosphere, especially in the market. Shortly after lunch the city takes on a different flavour as the majority of the Yemeni menfolk begin their favourite pastime, chewing qat (pronounced ‘gat’) in big lumps – Qat to Yemen is what vodka is to Russia, or wine to France – it’s a hallucinogenic leaf which is chewed for hours on end and supposedly gets you high. Personally I tried it and it tasted awful, give me a beer any day – especially given the heat in the afternoon sun.

Our domestic flight to the southern city of Aden was surprisingly uneventful and in fact rather civilised (no goats wondering down the aisle, for example) and brought us to the former British protectorate which was Queen Victoria’s first colony. Her statue stills adorns the central square, and the main port entrance proudly shows photographs of when Queen Elizabeth & Prince Phillip visited the city back in the 1950s. Such is the British influence on the city that there is even a model of Big Ben on the top of a hill. When my British grandfather was in the army, he was posted to Aden so my father spent several years of his childhood here, although it appears as though unlike Sana’a, Aden has since been given a concrete facelift in the form of non-descript high-rise blocks of flats – possibly testament to the fact that Yemen was the only official Marxist Islamic state. Aden nevertheless considers itself to be more open than the rest of the country – the Somali influences evident by the darker faces on the street, and much less likely for the ladies to be covered up – and it was fine to go for a swim in the warm gulf of Aden, although I didn’t spot any string bikinis.

Our next stop was a road trip to Ta’iz through the countryside, to visit the famous market with the local cheese a favourite delicacy – and a trip up a mountain for a fantastic view of the city and the castle on a hill. Followed, of course, by tea in an outdoor cafĂ© with bemused but friendly locals who seemed happy for us to join them. The following day saw us travel leisurely back to the capital with stops in Jiblah to visit a local mosque, and Ibb for a race around the winding streets of this hilly town pillion on motorcycles thanks to enterprising youths.

Our final day, after a boozy evening in a Sana’a restaurant & nightclub – yes, they have a nightclub where alcohol is served, we climbed the Wadi Dahr’s Rock Palace not far from the capital, driving through fields of qat and witnessed a traditional Yemeni tribal dance, complete with knife waving! But our tour would not have been complete without dressing up in traditional Yemeni clothing in the market for the flight on to Kuwait.

Adventurous we might be, but I must stress that at no time did we ever feel in any kind of danger and our guides were at pains to point out that Yemen is a safe & friendly country to visit – probably more so than wherever you happen to come from. Sure, there are some no-go areas, mainly in the north, by the Saudi border, but then we didn’t go there! Yemenis are very welcoming to foreigners who respect their country and culture, and are saddened that the world seems to have picked on them as being a haven for terrorists. At first glance you might think you really wouldn’t want to get on a plane with a bearded guy who has a knife stuck in his belt, towel in his hair and chewing qat – but we saw only smiles from all concerned – and if more people saw this for themselves then how different things might be. Oh, and the food was delicious!

Travel to, and in Yemen: Most Middle Eastern Airlines fly from all of Europe’s largest cities to Sana’a with a change of planes in their respective capitals, as do Lufthansa – however the twice weekly flight to London on Yemenia has recently been cancelled for ‘security’ reasons. Most nationalities can buy a tourist visa upon arrival at Sana’a airport without any prior arrangement. It is highly recommended that you book a tour in advance, as the agency will sort out your transport, and you will breeze through the numerous checkpoints with ease. Additionally English is not anywhere near as widely spoken as it is in other parts of the Middle East, even if many signs are in both English & Arabic.

Luc Jones is a British-Canadian based in Moscow, after stints in Warsaw, Minsk and a series of bleak Eastern European cities which possibly inspired his love of the world’s travel backwaters. Luc has travelled to 88 countries, including Abkhazia, which for this reason he is happy to recognize as independent.

Luc Jones