SAFAR (TRAVEL): SANA'A, YEMEN

by Stephany Daal
30-11-2021

Ali, a long time family friend, left Yemen for the Caribbean 21 years ago, but he goes back as often as he can. He speaks vividly when talking about his country and very fast, but you can sense his passion for the Yemeni way of living through his choice of words, the way he brings up memories and the lively but warm sound of his voice. He laughs in between and makes a joke here and there. A true Yemenite at heart? Born and raised in Aden, a coastal city in the south of Yemen and temporarily the capital of Yemen as of 2015, Ali takes me through Sana’a.

Yemen’s largest city feels surprising, unknown, light and a bit playful. Less hectic compared to larger cities such as Cairo, yet loud in its own way. Is it the honking cars, the scooters driving rapidly, the local buses ‘dabaabs’ randomly stopping anywhere or the people talking loudly in Yemeni Arabic on the crowded streets? Or a combination of all four perhaps. As the sun sets and the rush of the day settles, the city’s abundance of adorned rooftops in combination with the unique location next to the Sarawat mountain range create a continuous skyline carved by the rays of the setting sun. Nothing beats watching sunset on a rooftop as you hear the adhan (call to prayer) from the hundreds of minarets in the city. Some Yemenites seem to take a break to watch the sunset on a rooftop over a cup of shai, others seem unbothered and just calmly continue with their day. 

The city is divided into Old Sana’a and New Sana’a and although New Sana’a is certainly interesting with its modern, western style shopping malls and international restaurants catering to a more contemporary lifestyle, it’s Old Sana’a that captures my attention. Confined within the old city walls and mainly accessible through the large gate of Bab Al-Yaman, a walk through this ancient part of Sana’a will feel as if time has stood still. The adobe brick multistory buildings, the qamariya windows typical in Yemeni architecture and the labyrinth of alleys making you confused about where to begin or end don’t go unnoticed and will remind you of the city’s rich history. Every detail in Old Sana’a tells a vibrant story. From the narrow, cobbled streets packed with Yemenites hurriedly making their way through town, to the gentle but amusing chatter at the souq, to Yemenite women strolling around with their children. There’s a lack of cars in this part of the city due to the small streets being built for camels. 

The smell of spices and meat cooking over charcoal will hit you as soon as you approach a souq in Sana’a and it’s not uncommon for Yemenites to invite you over for shai in the many lively teahouses. Genuine hospitality in Yemen’s beating heart. Life here seems to happen around the souqs, with Yemenites gathering to meet with old friends or to do groceries. A common streetsight I’ve noticed is the chewing of qat, a leaf popular in Yemen which gives a mild euphoric feeling. Also not uncommon in the bustling Sana’a streets are the men walking around with knives around their waist. Known locally as the jambiya, it was long carried by men for protection. Nowadays, however, it’s rather symbolic and shows that those carrying it are capable of protecting their family and the larger community. 

I expected Sana’a to be as hot as Cairo was during summer, but due to an elevation of 2,300 metres the weather is rather pleasant. Ali talks about an average of thirty degrees Celsius in summer and two to six degrees Celsius in winter. 

And the best time to visit according to Ali? He starts laughing. “June, July, August and September,” he says proudly. “Because that’s when we have a lot of fruits.”