Impossible Bridge in Yemen
Excerpt from Zaina’s ebook titled “Stories of a Traveling Bellydancer”
posted March 1, 2012
I had a couple of more weeks to kill before my next assignment in good old Bahrain. I had seriously considered going to Kenya, but was still recovering from the nasty stomach bug. I didn’t feel up for Africa. Being sick in a new country (in which I knew nobody) would suck twice as much. I needed a place where I felt safe, had some friends, and knew my way around: a place like Yemen! Besides, there was a bridge there that I wanted to check out.
The village of Shaharah, six hours north of the capital, was not always accessible for travelers. The government habitually shut down the road if they felt that the security situation was worse than average. Luckily for me, that was not the case when I got to Sana’a. The travel agent still tried to talk me out of it. The trip was never completely safe: the tribal lands were not government friendly, and foreigners have been kidnapped in Yemen time and again. Therefore, shortly after exiting Sana’a I would first need a police escort who would travel in a convoy with me until I was handed over to a tribal escort who’d take me the rest of the way. The trip would also be kind of expensive as I’d have to pay both.
However, that made me feel very well protected; Yemeni guys are no pussies, so they wouldn’t think twice about taking someone down if they were under attack. True, the road leading up to the mountain top-village was in horrendous condition and seriously nauseating, but whatever. Great! When could I go?
My driver, Mohamed, quickly understood how to speak Arabic to me in a way that I would understand. We had nice conversations along the way, touching many topics about life in Yemen and abroad, and my experiences so far. I brought up the incident that had made news worldwide: 10-year-old Nujood being forcibly married to an older man who beat and raped her until she got a divorce. Mohamed said that what had happened to the little girl had angered people all over the country. To be fair, that particular family was in a dire situation: the father was disabled and couldn’t work, and the older children were already begging on the streets to feed themselves. They were concerned for the girl’s safety, and marriage had seemed like the honorable alternative.
We passed what felt like ten checkpoints along the way. Mohamed handed out a copy of my passport at each one, and answered questions about my nationality and where we were headed. A Qat-chewing crew of six policemen soon joined us for a few hours until we were handed over to the tribal escorts. (That means tribal men who accompany you, not tribal belly dancers who turn tricks; they don’t have those in Yemen.) All the while, I didn’t even have to open my mouth; it was smooth sailing.
I’ve been on some bumpy roads, but the road leading up to the village of Shaharah, at the altitude of 2600 meters (8500 feet), takes the cake. We parked the SUV by the foot of the mountain and hopped on a pick-up truck belonging to the villagers. Everyone said “Bismillah ir-rahman ir-raheem”. Indeed, we needed all the protection God would grant us! Carved close to the mountain’s edge, the road was literally a pile of rocks and gravel, and it seemed never to end. The higher we got, the more spectacular the view became, but this, absolutely, was the craziest trip I had ever taken. Getting into that village to see a bridge seemed like “Mission Impossible”. For a moment there, I really questioned my judgment… Since when did I have such an unwavering interest in architecture? The last stretch of the road was really steep and the truck was bouncing up and down. I just had to pray. Afterwards, Mohamed casually mentioned that a car full of tourists had flipped over once, and they died. Somehow I wasn’t surprised.
A teenage boy was assigned as my guide and off we went, walking around while there was still some daylight left. Trekking on the cliffs was tricky for me. Even with sensible sneakers on, I had to place my foot carefully to not stumble face first into the rocks. I stopped many times to catch my breath while the boy patiently waited. There was very little oxygen in the air; we were basically at the level of the clouds. Miraculously, the village women strutted up and down the mountains as if it were Fifth Avenue; their faces (including their eyes) were covered, and they were wearing slip-on sandals. How they didn’t fall and twist an ankle or worse, I couldn’t fathom.
I saw a little boy by himself riding his bike right on the edge, close enough to make my heart skip a beat! I asked my guide if children sometimes fell off the mountain’s edge. Yes, he said. Sometimes they did.
The sun set over the mountains and a distant azan could be heard from many directions. I felt as if I were in a parallel universe. The village was like a dream: so peaceful and beautiful. I had never felt such isolation, such distance from what I was used to thinking was the world. For the people here, this was the world. It had all they wanted and needed. I was speechless.
After the sundown, all I could do was wait for the morning. There was electricity for the night hours in the simple hotel where all visitors stayed. I was very well fed. Traditional Yemeni meals were brought to my room on a tray without ordering. In the morning it was time to see the bridge. Was it all that it was cracked up to be? You bet it was! It was a formation of rocks – a bridge – connecting two mountains, just hanging in the air on–nothing. It dated back to the early 17th Century, and I don’t know how they managed to build it. The view down from the bridge was intoxicating. Thus the trip was complete. I came, I saw, I conquered, and took a lot of pictures.
After a couple of days of rest and relaxation in Sana’a, I was ready to get back on the road. I headed southwest for a four-day tour to the cities of Hodeidah, Taiz, Ibb and other points of interest on the way. That part of the country was considered as safe as Yemen got; there was no red tape, and getting around was easy. This time, my driver was a young guy called Abdullah. He popped a khaleeji CD in, turned the volume up and drove off with one hand on the horn and a cell phone in the other the entire time.
Our first stop was a pretty village called Manakha. We walked around, and I took pictures of buildings, while Abdullah talked into one of his several cell phones. At some point, I mentioned to him that I hadn’t seen any women. He immediately approached a couple of kids on the street. Before I could stop him, he’d told them to bring me to their house to meet their mother. Shy and embarrassed as I was to intrude, it was intriguing to meet local people and see how they lived. I sat down with the mother and the children. The teenage girls were working on crafts that they sold, and kids were playing. Talking was a bit hard, but we managed. One of the little girls was called Baghdad, which was a completely unusual name for a Yemeni girl. She had been born just when the US invaded Iraq. I drank tea, took a photo of the younger children, and was given a hand-sewn cell phone case with some bead work, along with fresh, hot bread. I was a happy girl when I got back to the SUV.
Getting closer to the coast, the nature began to look different, as well as the people. The air smelled different, and green leafy trees grew like in a jungle. Many people had very dark skin. Were they African? No, they were Yemeni, Abdullah said. The African influence in the area goes back many generations.
The coastal city of Hodeidah had an atmosphere of a fishing town. The air was humid, and you could smell the ocean. We saw some sights and stayed for the night. Back on the road the next day, I discovered what would perhaps be my favorite place in Yemen. It was the village of Zabid. All the buildings were white. Zabid had the biggest mosque in the country excluding the Sana’a extravaganza that president Saleh built with his “own” money, for millions of dollars. (It pays to be the president.) A teenage boy showed us around town, navigating through the narrow alleyways between white-walled buildings. We climbed onto the rooftop of one building, and I was pulled inside a home. Two old women asked me dozens of questions and showed me the things they had for sale. I was trying to refuse politely, but they were so incredibly sweet and enthusiastic and touchy-feely that I just had to buy something. I’m a sucker for old-lady love. It reminds me of my grandma. My purchase was the strangest type of perfume I’ve ever seen. It was a lump of sticky brown mass inside a little plastic bag, and had a strong scent. They rubbed it onto their hands and then on my neck and wrists and abaya, and I smelled nice, I had to admit.
As I continued the tour, a little girl called Hana joined us. She held my hand and giggled as we walked around. When I asked her how old she was, she said ten, but with a little coercion she admitted to being only five. I jokingly told the guide that she was my daughter. He got the joke but contested: “How could you have a daughter when you’re not married?” For a second I wanted to tell him exactly how that would be possible, but decided to leave him at his innocent state. (An ethical tourist should neither throw garbage nor corrupt the youth.)
Taiz and Ibb resembled Sana’a, only they were smaller. We went to the souq in Taiz, and it was intense. There was a little mountain right outside Ibb, which offered a nice view down. People were chilling and enjoying Qat and the city lights.
We stopped at a small town called Jiblah. It was like straight from a story book–so pretty. Narrow streets and colorful buildings squeezed each other tightly; this place had character. Our little guide was called Abdo. He was around ten years old, and spoke five languages. It was pretty remarkable to have a Yemeni child show me his town, speaking understandable English.
Once on the road, I called my friend back in Sana’a, gushing about Jiblah and how cute it was. “I don’t like that place”, he said. “That’s where they killed the American doctors.”
Abdullah took good care of me, finding accommodation and restaurants and restrooms along the way, always checking if I needed anything or wanted to stop to see something. At one restaurant, we ordered chicken, and it came as expected, bones and all. I asked for a knife. They tried to find one to accommodate my strange request, but came back to explain that the drawer for such special cutlery was locked and the guy with the key was chewing Qat somewhere. I didn’t have it in me to stick my fingers and face into the chicken, so I was going to skip the whole thing and just settle for rice. Abdullah wasn’t having it, and told them to find a knife. All eyes were on me as staff and customers alike wondered “What’s the matter with the foreign girl; why won’t she eat her chicken?” About twenty minutes later, a knife appeared. The waiter had gone to his house to get it. I ate.
It was dark as we approached Sana’a. Abdullah made a stop to buy Qat to bring home, for himself and his wife. When women get married it becomes socially acceptable to chew with their husband, but before marriage, it is frowned upon. (Supposedly, it might make you horny, but as far as I could see, it just makes you lazy.) As we got to the city he met up with a friend and his wife on the street. In the darkness of the night, I saw the three of them chat, his friend’s wife putting her gloved hand on Abdullah’s arm as she laughed. That was something you never saw in broad daylight. She came over to the car to meet me. I could see the smile on her face, even if her eyes were the only part of her that was visible. She invited me to visit their house sometime. Too bad I was flying out the next day.
The saying “There’s more than meets the eye” is especially true of Yemeni women. So many times, when I heard them talk and giggle behind their niqabs, I wished I could get their side of the story for once.
Despite what you hear in the news, I always feel safe in Yemen. In many other countries, I’d think twice about road tripping alone with a man I’ve never met before, but not here. For a Yemeni driver taking care of the customer – especially a female – is not just a job, it’s a matter of sharaf. Upon whom do you rely for your safety–anywhere in the world? The police? The government? Of course not! It’s the people around you who count. Either they protect you, or they don’t. Therefore, the way I see it, values like sharaf go a long way.
As I packed up and got ready to leave, I was very content with all the places I’d been able to fit into my ten days. I was already looking forward to the next time. There’s a lot of Yemen left to see, and I can hardly wait.
Ready for more?
- 3-20-01 Living in Yemen, Part I – Tafruta
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- 10-5-01 Dancing in Yemen, Part 2: El Arous
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