Middle East & Africa 2009

Southern Arabia And The Troubles Of Yemen

Until a few months ago, the Republic of Yemen fell into that embarrassingly large category of nations that I would struggle to point out on an unlabelled map. (Try it now. Yemen. Where is it?)

Sunset in the mountains of Western Yemen

Occupying the south-west corner of the Arabian Peninsular, this former British colony nowadays makes the headlines only for its continuing run of kidnappings of and attacks against foreigners by members of Al-Qaeda, the well-known clandestine anti-Zionist/crusader organization fronted by the A‑list celebrity Arab, Osama Bin Laden, which is known to have major operations in the country.

There has been a serious upwelling of misinformed fear of the Arab world, and of Islam in general, in the West, which can be largely traced to the activities of this organization and the media’s continuing obsession with reporting (distorting) the resultant suffering and delirium to the exclusion of everything else. In the minds of some, it is sad to see, fear has given way to outright, misguided hatred. I do not say this because I want to follow a popular line of criticism; I have encountered enough examples of it in my own country.

The flipside of the coin is that while travelling in the Arab nations over the last few months, many conversations with locals have quickly turned to the topic of ‘terrorism’. People go to great pains to explain to me that they and their fellow countrymen are not, in fact, ‘terrorists’ at all, and that there are no ‘terrorists’ inhabiting their lands. They assume that I too must be infected with this misconception. They know it’s only ever the perpetrators we hear about in the West, but in reality these tiny extremist cells remain hidden, disconnected, despised by local governments and civilians who just want to live in peace and get on with their lives – which, of course, is pretty much everyone, Arab and Westerner alike.

A shawrma shop in Aden

And Yemen turned out to be no different in this respect. The typically friendly Arabs I spoke to on the road from Mokha up into the highlands were damning of the frequency of attacks in Yemen against foreign tourists and diplomats, if the conversation strayed that way. Tourism from the West is almost non-existent today, and it’s a shame; the majority of tourists come from neighbouring Saudi Arabia in order to kick back in a country where living costs are next to nothing and the girls, apparently, are dead easy.

Incidentally, my first conversation with a girl of Yemen occurred on my first morning in the country after I’d spent a couple of minutes clinging to the back of a tanker which had growled past on the last rise of a long ascent. The driver stopped just after the summit and wound down the window, I assumed in preparation to scold me as I rolled past down the other side. But in fact, he handed me a bottle of ice-cold water and asked me where I was from, where I was going, and seemed jolly happy to see me, as did most people I met on the roads of Yemen.

The limits of my Arabic soon became apparent, as my ear was not attuned to the Yemeni dialect, which is said to be the most difficult of the many flavours of colloquial Arabic, and I was crap at Arabic anyway. So one of his adult daughters, who had until then been sitting unnoticed in the darkness of the rear cabin, leaned forward to speak to me. She was an English language teacher at a nearby school, I learned. “So what do you think of Yemen?” she asked.

“Well, I’ve only been here a couple of days”, I replied. “But so far, it seems pretty good.” It was my standard, unconsidered answer. I wasn’t in the habit of offending people with unfavourable opinions of their countries (I should point out that my general opinion is rarely unfavourable), but I had not been in Yemen for long enough to form any thoughtful opinions.

“No! I hate it. I hate this country,” she retorted, eyes narrowing, fully aware that her father, who sat grinning at the wheel, had no idea what she was saying to me. My next question could have been “why?” but the utterance was unnecessary. For she was draped from head to toe in flowing black robes, with only the narrowest rectangular slice taken out of the fabric in order to see. I could make out no nose, no ears, no mouth, no shape at all, in fact, which was precisely the intention. Her hands, too, were gloved in black. I said I was sorry for her situation but that I was glad to have met her, smiled at the truck driver and shook his hand, and pedalled on.

The public beach of Aden, Yemen

And I really was glad to have met her. I was glad to have the nagging little voice of idealism, which reminded me that this was merely a ‘cultural difference’ and no better or worse than my own, silenced in such an unambiguous way. Yemeni women young and old, when I was lucky enough to spot them, almost invariably wore the full burka. Sometimes this included a semi-transparent veil, meaning that not even the eyes were visible to an onlooker. I wondered how many of them shared the views of my recent acquaintance.

I’d never seen this style of dress other than as a very rare sight in any previously visited Arab nation, but here it seemed almost mandatory. Even with a lifetime of practice, many women still encountered difficulties boarding the little white and yellow Toyota minibuses that zipped around the towns, being unable to see their own feet, or indeed anything other than what was immediately in front of them. I could only wonder at the state of male-female relations in Saudia itself, if Saudi men considered women here ‘easy’.

Aside from the overwhelming lack of female contact that I would have to get used to all over again, I was delighted to find Yemen to be just as hospitable as Syria, with some of the best food I’d had since Egypt, and with good roads, much more lush and verdant scenery than I’d expected, and spectacular mountainscapes reminiscent of eastern Turkey or Iran. After all the bad press, stern warnings from my government and words of concern from distant, fearful friends, it was turning out to be a lovely place for a bicycle ride.

Clouds over the Yemeni mountains It would take me a few days to get a feeling for the best practices of camping, haggling, getting water, finding normally-priced food, finding peace and rest, and all the other aspects of life on the road that vary from country to country. It always took a while. I was caught out one night at dusk, without a suitable place to camp in the heavily populated and cultivated valley I was following, and a long ride from the next motel-bearing town. I wasn’t yet confident enough to approach passers-by for places to sleep, so I turned off the road and grunted my way up an immensely steep dirt track towards the ridge of the valley. Before long I came across a pile of rocks on the verge, waiting to be used to crudely pave the road. There was a big building inside a compound of some sort down a little path on the steep hillside, but there were no lights on, no other buildings nearby, and seemingly no traffic.

Too exhausted to search in the failing light for a better, flatter, more hidden patch of land, and more than a little unhinged at the end of a very long day of hilly cycling in a new country, I decided that the best course of action would be to sleep al fresco there and then. I built myself a small wall around a body-sized patch of bare earth, with the rocks and the track on one side and with a sheer drop down the precipitous mountainside on the other, spread out my groundsheet, lowered my bicycle over the precipice onto a small, hidden ledge, and lay down to sleep for the night.

Unfortunately and somewhat predictably I was shaken awake up some hours later by two men who stood muttering in the gloom, evidently wondering (as well they might) why I was asleep on the edge of a cliff in the mountains of rural south-west Yemen. Bleary-eyed and half-awake, I grumbled when they instructed me to pack my bags and come with them to the nearby compound, which turned out to be a school. I couldn’t understand their insistence. What was wrong with the tiny, exposed, uncomfortable little shelter I’d constructed by the roadside?

The next morning I felt immediately ashamed of my bad-tempered reaction to their attempt to help a stranded traveller, and tried to appear as grateful as possible, which I was, in all honesty, because they’d taken me to a safe place and given their permission for me to sleep there. I was just about to scarper when the head teacher arrived and told me that breakfast was on the way – fuul (oh joy) and bread.

While I was eating, kids began to trickle down the surrounding hillsides and into the compound. Full of fuul and ready for a few more hours’ uphill riding, I emerged from the caretaker’s office in front of several hundred small boys in the midst of their morning workout, as led by the headmaster who blasted out drill-sergeant-style instructions over the loudspeakers. Workout forgotten, all eyes were on me as I chuckled at the spectacle, snapped a quick photo and left before assembly finished and I got mobbed.

Village school assembly in Yemen

Some days later I arrived in Aden, just in time for lunch at a roadside café in the industrial zone that surrounds all major cities. I was presented with a huge flat bread, wrenched from the oven seconds earlier; a dish of rice flavoured with cinnamon and cloves, which I customarily had to learn to eat with my right hand alone; and a cast-iron bowl in which was bubbling a fibrous green stew topped with shredded meat and some kind of pepper sauce. It sounds odd, but it was fantastic.

The old capital of South Yemen and a former British imperial stronghold, Aden and its surrounding settlements occupy a small patch of south Yemeni coastline, Aden itself being located on a small island just five or six kilometres in diameter. It was disgustingly sticky and hot as I crossed the bridge to the island and set about locating my host for the next few days, a French teacher and expatriate named Sebastien.

Offshore fishermen in Aden

After a tiring few weeks crossing diverse and challenging environments and dealing with more than the usual amount of the unexpected, it was time for a few well-earned days of rest. But, as usual, I had some jobs to do. My first priority was to find out whether or not I would be able to cycle to Oman. For years, the few cyclists brave or stupid enough to try it had been turned back at checkpoints or bundled onto mandatory police convoys through the troubled region of Hadramawt, which I would have to cross in order to reach the Omani border. Here, tourists are occasionally kidnapped and used as bargaining chips in negotiations, always being treated well and later released unharmed, but in recent months, things seem to have become more violent, with four Korean tourists killed by a suicide bomber at a tourist site in the region less than two months ago.

My first port of call was the police station, and after explaining my plans I was told that there were currently no problems in the area and that I would be issued a travel permit. I was happy to hear this from the chief of police himself, but still a little wary that I might become the next reason to close the area again. I hoped that my quiet, independent, non-sightseeing form of travel would keep me out of harm’s way.

That done, I set about the formidable task of finding a turnery to have some new bearing cups machined for my trailer. If this sounds like technical gobbledygook to you, imagine trying to explain it in a country where hardly anyone speaks English and nobody owns a bicycle, let alone one with a trailer. Luckily, I met a middle-aged man who spoke excellent English at the French cultural centre in the middle of town. Fahmi was a technician for the centre and instantly understood my mechanical problem and what I needed to fix it, so the next day we went to a large and well-equipped machine shop that he knew of.

My trailer is now in their hands and I will trust that it will be good to go when I retrieve it on Saturday. Previously in Ethiopia, when one of the trailer’s more important moving parts had unexpectedly worn out in the middle of nowhere, I had written to the company, Extrawheel, in order to have a new trailer shipped out. But in Djibouti I had got talking to an Irish motorcyclist called Mike, who was eighteen months into a grand tour of Africa. “If you can find a good machine shop in Yemen, those guys are really talented,” he advised. “They can make anything.”

It occurred to me that I had automatically done what my cultural instincts had taught me to do in the face of a breakage – trash the offending item and get a new one. What a waste. It was just a sliver of metal shaped in a particular way. Who said a new part couldn’t be made?

I resolved to get resourceful, do what society did in this part of the world, and find a way of fixing the problem using the human ingenuity and creativity we’re all blessed with, rather than running the dumb materialist cycle of dispose and consume. We waste so much in the West, and we really cannot continue doing so for much longer, because the resources needed to fuel this system are going to run out. Our habits, seen objectively, are plain lazy and incredibly shortsighted, but they are imposed on us by the ‘free market’, the system we’ve elevated to divine and unimpeachable levels of importance, which thrives on disposability and endless consumption. We rarely question the system until we see another way of doing things and think “ooh, that’s a good idea!”

The rest of the world takes broken objects and fixes them ad infinitum until they really are just scrap. The taxis of Aden are testament to that!

A Yemeni teenager leaps into the sea

I’m now enjoying the tastes of Aden cuisine – juice bars on every corner, tons of delicious bread and rice, and the freshest fish you can imagine. Last night Sebastian, his Turkish guest Cihan, one of his Yemeni students, and I went down to the market where fresh fish was arriving on the beach below, selected a suitably monstrous specimen, dragged it to a restaurant nearby where it was cleaned, cooked and served up with bread and garlic sauce a few minutes later. On the way home, our taxi driver entertained us with his fantastic selection of early 90’s European dance hits, bringing back memories of being thirteen years old, buying my first twelve-inch vinyls and wishing I could go clubbing at the weekends.

Aden diving centre

I’m planning to leave on Sunday and start riding up the coastal road towards Yemen. I hope to be in Dubai within a month, and in Iran with my lovely girlfriend by the start of July. Wish me luck!

5 replies on “Southern Arabia And The Troubles Of Yemen”

I came across your pics on the Yemen group on flickr. It is very interesting what you are trying to do and I wish you the best of luck. I also enjoyed reading your blog about Yemen. It is a bit strange though, sometimes uncomfortable, and a few times offending. Yet it is always informative to see ones country from a different perspective. It is bad that you didn’t get to see Sanaa or Shibam. And it is unfortunate that you didn’t get to cycle all the way to Oman. 

Hi sallam, thanks for your comments. I am glad you enjoyed reading about my experiences in Yemen and how I saw it from the perspective of a Westerner. I often meet people who have interesting, strange, uncomfortable or offensive views of my country and culture, so I guess it works both ways! 

I would have liked to have seen more of Yemen, but I think that now is not the best time to do so. I hope to return in the future when there is more opportunity for freedom and exploration. It is a beautiful country and I hope the stability problems are solved soon. 

Sounds like another incredible experience you’re having bro. I’ve considered hanging off the back of pick-up trucks on my cycle commute in Vancouver but I’ve never had the balls to do it haha. Yemen sounds pretty darn interesting though, and the photos are spectacular as usual. Loving the blogs, I really should update mine when I can! 

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