A Visit to Yemen

Many years ago, in 1979, when I was a business-development person, my company sent me to the Arabian Peninsula to look into pipeline projects coming up in the region. I visited Abu Dhabi and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and Muscat, in Oman, and Sanaa, in South Yemen. My favorite was Sanaa, which I pronounce without the second ‘a’ at the end. The word sana’a means happiness in Arabic.

It was a long time ago; I can only describe a few sights I recall from the hotel and the city.

Yemen did not have oil. Therefore, it was out of the mainstream–poor, not enjoying the frenzied development and self-importance of all of its neighbors. Its principal export was labor, Yemeni men working in the other oil-rich countries and sending home their earnings. In that way, the oil boom in the rest of the region was helping Yemen, but not to the same degree. Yemeni workers had to compete with the labor markets of Pakistan and India and other South Asian countries. Yemen’s rulers were not becoming rich, engineers and architects were not building modern glass and concrete buildings in the midst of old Sanaa, as was happening in all the other capital cities. Sanaa, for better or worse, retained its old character and some of its old ways.

North Yemen was an Arab Republic. Its neighbor, South Yemen, was Marxist. Americans were welcome in North Yemen but warned to avoid the South. There were some hostilities at the time, but in the years that followed there was more and more conflict. The country was officially united in 1990. In 2000 al-Qaeda bombed the USS Cole in the port of Aden, the former capital of South Yemen. The unified Yemen is now a radicalized mess that includes al-Qaeda, the Islamist State, and a group called Houthis, a Shia insurgency, with the Saudis trying to violently pacify the place with drones and airstrikes.

Sanaa’s character included a high level of masonry craftsmanship. In the traditional building method, the masons laid the black stone blocks of walls with only a thin paste of mortar between the stones, and the stones were shaped onsite. The men sat on the heap of rough stones brought to the site and chipped them into block shapes. It was not efficient, but the result was handsome.

At the time of my visit, I passed through Immigration and Customs at the Sanaa international airport, and a taxi took me to my hotel, the Al-Mahdi Palace Hotel. I had chosen it in preference to the more standard modern type of hotel near the airport, which looked like a less comfortable version of airport hotels everywhere in the Third World.

The Al-Mahdi Palace Hotel stood on the edge of the gentle hill of the city itself, so that the city rose slightly away from it on one side, and the hotel overlooked farmers’ fields on the other. The hotel was like a giant cube made of the aforementioned black stone, with a smaller cube on top.

The hotel had been, as the name states, a palace, but a palace in a poor Arabian country. Its windows on the ground floor were tall rectangles, without graceful Moorish curves. The main entrance was a tall narrow pair of doors opening on massive worn stone steps. Inside, all the doors opening off the entry hall, which was high but not large, were closed. I don’t know what the rooms on the second and third floors were like, nor how many there were. During my stay I only saw one of the ground floor rooms, a breakfast room in the left front corner. I don’t remember other guests, but there must have been some.

My room was in the smaller cube atop the hotel, the fourth floor, with access to the main roof. A pair of doors from my room opened onto that level, so I could go out and view the hotel’s surroundings from above. The perimeter of the roof of the main cube was a stone parapet, waist high and without crenellations. My room was large, with windows on two sides plus an exterior door on one. The room held a double bed, a chair, a table and lamp, and a large worn carpet on the stone floor. Sanaa is high in the mountainous center of N. Yemen, 200 miles from the Red Sea, and it was cool, so I didn’t need the air conditioner in one of the windows.

The bathroom was off the landing. In a corner was a dark recess with a hole in the stone floor–a primitive traditional Arab toilet–with raised stones beside the hole and between the door and the hole. A faucet in the wall ran water in a gentle arc into the hole. The floor between the raised stones was wet. In the rest of the bathroom were a sink, with mirror, and tub with shower, even a towel rack.

Early in the morning of my first day in Sanaa–a Friday, so a holiday–I was awakened by a very loud and regular banging from outside. I went out on the roof to see what it was. Two streets came together beside the wall of the hotel, and in the corner they formed was a large low-walled bowl, perhaps a dozen feet in diameter and two feet deep. A small stone statue of a woman holding a vessel stood in the center, and when it was new it’s possible that water flowed from the vessel. Nevertheless, the bowl could hardly have been called a fountain.

The banging came from an old diesel-powered single-cylinder pump that was filling the bowl through a large canvas hose in rhythmic gushes–one per bang–from a well I couldn’t see. I went inside to dress. When I returned to the roof, I found the bowl was three quarters full. Women were filling containers from it and taking them away. After a while the pump was turned off, and women came to the bowl again, this time to dip water into tubs and launder clothing, then rinse the clothes in the bowl. When the clothing had been rinsed, someone opened a drain in the side of the bowl, and the soapy water ran down a long channel into irrigation ditches in the field below. The fields were green in the brown rocky surroundings, and I could see the glint of water in the channels all the way across. This sequence went on every day of my stay.

During the days, I talked with the American ambassador and some of his staff about plans for a pipeline. I seem to recall that it was to bring fuel up to Sanaa from a port city on the Red Sea coast, Al-Hudaydah. The Yemenis were hoping the U.S. would fund it. The project never stood a chance–exporting oil was the name of the game, not importing it. There were a couple of western survey and engineering companies in the city, and I called on them, too.

One day, as I drove in a cab through narrow streets in the old downtown area of Sanaa, I saw, only a few feet from the car’s window, a huge furry surface pass the inside of an open doorway. I said “Wait. Stop, back up,” to the driver. We were blocking the street, but no one was held up. I got out and stuck my head in the doorway. When my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I saw that inside was a large round room with a high domed ceiling. A small hole in the center let in a little light. The floor was dirt, the walls were blackened, and a camel walked round and round, attached to a long pole, turning a post in the center. The camel lightly brushed the wall as he walked. I had to pull my head away from the door for him to pass every minute or so. I saw the walking legs of a person beyond the camel’s legs as he passed. It was a mill of some kind, powered by a camel. I watched, amazed, for a few revolutions before we drove on.

In Yemen I was struck by the inefficient methods of the masons as they built their handsome buildings, by the efficient use of water at the bowl outside the hotel, and the primitiveness of the camel-powered mill. Plus I remember a view of tall old stone buildings around a rough square in the center of the oldest part of the town, with bright sun accentuating the white outlines of the windows and not a sign anywhere to indicate what century we were in.