I resisted chewing qat as much as I could but after a month curiosity took the better of me and I relented. Whatever the Yemenis say, qat is a drug. And it is found everywhere.
To chew or not to chew is up to you. I chewed only once. I was with a group of Yemeni friends sitting comfortably in a mafrag; listening to songs and religious readings; smoking sheesha; sipping water; inhaling incense and perfume and chatting or just relaxing.
I only chewed two handfuls of best quality qat (red tinged young leaves). The taste at first was horribly bitter but later I found myself popping qat in my mouth without thinking. The men around me all had bulging cheeks and a rather glazed look. I tried very hard not to swallow any but was not totally successful. I lost count of the time and I forgot that I had not eaten that evening. The effect on me was slow in coming but rather impressive. It did make me feel good but I will never try it again.
I do not know how people drive and chew qat. Qat interferes with one's power of judgement. For example I had to force myself to look right and left before crossing the street because I felt the other cars would stop because I was there!
Qat is also reputed to have aphrodisiac properties but it is more likely that it depends more on what you are thinking. Qat simply makes you feel you can be and do whatever you want.
Since I chewed a very small quantity, the effect wore off in a few hours. The company you are with and the place are all important factors to enjoy qat to the fullest.
More than anywhere I've visited, as a tourist carrying a camera you will attract hordes of children wanting you to take their picture ('Sura' is Arabic for photo). All they want is to look at the picture on the screen of the camera and provided that you don't start a riot because more and more children wanting their picture taken start appearing it's usually entertaining. You may even get the odd good photo: the only drawback is that it can get very time-consuming. Infinitely better than being pestered for pens or money: you actually get to relate to the kids. Good fun.
Some points for discussion
1) I don't believe a majority of Yemenis is overly shocked or concerned at the way some visitors dress. They wouldn't allow their female relatives to dress like that, obviously, but there is a general acceptance of the fact that people fom other cultures have different customs. That's not to say I'd encourage women (or men) to wear just anything they feel like (or for example to drink alcohol in the streets) - just to say one shouldn't get too uptight about it.
2) Yemenis are actually thrilled when foreigners try on their national dress, whether men or women. They don't feel ridiculed, I have noticed. A lady friend visiting the Old City of Sana'a was greeted with enthusiasm, even though somehow immediately noticed that she wasn't Yemeni despite being completely covered, niqaab and all.
3) Then again, I don't agree that as a foreign woman wearing the veil (niqaab) is a sign of respect. A few decades ago wearing the niqaab was not uncommon, but wearing only a head scarf was not uncommon either. Today hardly any Yemeni woman feels free not to wear it, in large part due to wahabist influence from the Kingdom to the North. In the South, especially in Aden, it was quite common for women not to cover up, but since the unification (we're talking recent history here and not "time-honored traditions"!) this liberty has been pretty much stamped out. Sure, many Yemeni women will say they feel more comfortable wearing a (nylon) veil (at temperature of upto 45 degrees celsius in the shade or in the sea at Aden beaches), but for negative reasons: they (and their relatives) get sneers if they don't; some may believe it is what the Prophet wanted. But if given totally free choice, they would burn 'em - watch how many Yemeni women take it off as soon as they board an outward-bound plane. (This is the Internet, but in real life I only have discussions like this with Yemenis that I know well.)Related to:
- Budget Travel
- Road Trip
Guns: just say 'NO'
I only saw a handful of men carrying AK47s. Instead at every police checkpoint you see this remarkable sign: a representation of a Kalashnikov in the barred circle meaning 'No whatevers'. (My reasons for only including this photo of the sign on a bottle of water are obvious. I didn't get a single snap of any of the friendly but tedious police checkpoints)
In fact the government is spending huge amounts of money buying back the accumulated private arsenals of the country. Nevertheless, I was told that you could buy more or less anything under the size of a tank at the notorious arms market near Marib.....
What NOT to wear
Most travellers take the necessary steps to make sure they have a great trip but one of my pet peeves is the dress code situation. There is nothing I hate more than being in a conservative country and seeing people be very disrespectful with regards to the dress code. I understand that many people dont agree with the dress code situation in the Middle East but that doesnt mean you should be walking around like you are about to go to a beach. You should either research before you arrive or take hints from the locals. You will def lose respect among the locals and attract unwanted attention. If you have a major problem with the dress code then stay at home please. Yemen is very very conservative country. Please respect the culture and cover up.
Dressing like locals
Most places in the ME have a unique dress code and more often than not the locals dont mind someone trying to adapt but some foreigners buy some local clothes to fit in with their surroundings. Yemen is different in that most locals are offended by people trying to dress like them because being a poor country they feel as though foreign travellers are making fun of them. Good to know so that you dont make a bad first impression.
Tips for women travelling alone
Yemen is extremely conservative and you will rarely see a woman showing her whole face even in Sana'a. Most of the women wear the full gear similar to the rest of the Gulf (Saudi style) so you should be aware that women should not wear shorts or t shirts and respect the culture. To avoid any unwanted attention there are numerous things women can do to adjust to the local culture. First, wear a wedding ring, it will inform people that you are not available. If you are travelling with a boyfriend tell people that you are married. Always tell people you are travelling in a group because if they find out you are alone they may give you some hassle. Avoid direct eye contact with local men and sunglasses are brilliant. Keep to yourself in huge groups to avoid being touched. Dont sit in the front of the taxi unless the woman is the driver and on public transport, sit next to women if possible. If you require assistance, ask women first. Ask to be seated in the family areas when eating in restaurants and if you need to get rid of any men following you or harrassing you then go to the nearest hotel lobby.
Yemen is divided into five natural topograhic regions: mountains, highlands, desert, coast, and offshore islands. Much of the central region of Yemen is mountainous, ranging between 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) and 12,336 feet (3,760 meters) in elevation, and consisting of steep, rugged mountain ranges with fertile wadis between them.
Much of the population of Yemen currently lives within the mountain region, and has since ancient times. In rural areas, the people established mountaintop villages for two main reasons. One was for protection from enemies during periods of tribal warfare that were prevalent in Yemen at the time. The other was so that what little level land there was could be used for agricultural purposes. Rather than waste level land on buildings, crops were planted instead.
Nowadays, these mountaintop villages are no longer as isolated as they once were. Many can be reached by new roads, and most now have running water and electricity. Inhabitants must still negotiate the steep slopes, however, while tending their fields, or traveling to neighboring villages to buy supplies. And these villages offer visitors great photographic opportunities. (The village pictured here can best be seen by enlarging the picture).
The mountain region of Yemen consists of steep, rugged mountains with little level land useful for agricultural purposes. To solve the problem, Yemeni farmers have been constructing agricultural terraces for centuries. Similar agricultural terraces have been built by peoples as far away as Peru and Southeast Asia, including the Philippines and parts of Indonesia. In Yemen, these terraces can be seen throughout the mountainous areas of the country, and in some areas cover most of the accessible slopes. A few even cover slopes 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) from top to bottom.
Due to the altitude of most agricultural terraces, the crops that can be grown on them are somewhat limited, especially when compared to those that can be grown in the fertile wadis at lower elevations. Some of the crops grown on the agricultural terraces include almonds, barley, corn, oats, and sorghum. The most common crop, however, is coffee beans. But qat is increasingly being grown, and may overtake coffee beans as the most prevalent crop. Qat is the leaf of a plant that when chewed, produces a mildly narcotic effect that supposedly helps increase energy and stamina.
Chewing the Qat
Yemen, especially in the north, is as much in the grip of this leaf as Western culture is in thrall to alcohol. Consuming it is a daily ritual if you can afford it: and its cultivation and distribution account for a large proportion of the country's economy.
The qat plantations are readily recognisable: not only the distictive, slightly reddish, shade of green of the small tree, but the utterly distinctive guard towers and barbed wire fences.
Islam was brought to Yemen in 630 A.D. by Ali ibn Abu Talib, and it was during this period that several notable mosques were built in the country, including the Great Mosque in Sana'a.
Islam is the official religion of Yemen, although the constitution guarantees freedom of religion and allows practitioners of other religions to worship freely. Yemen is generally free from Islamic extremism, unlike in some of its neighboring countries. The people do not tolerate religious zealotry or violence, and the government monitors mosques and religious schools for sermons that incite violence or extremism.
Muslims in Yemen are divided between two principal groups: the Sunni (about 50 to 55 percent) and the Shi'a (about 42 to 47 percent). The Shi'a group is further divided into the Zaidi, Ja'fari, and Isma'ili orders. The Zaidis are generally in the north and northwest part of the country, the Ja'faris are in the north in the Sana'a area, and the Isma'ilis are in the west. The Zaidis have dominated religion and culture in Yemen for centuries, and nowadays are overrepresented in government. There have been no incidents of violence or discrimination between the groups, although Wahhabi and Salafi influences from Saudi Arabia are attempting to disrupt the stability now enjoyed in Yemen.
Photography of Muslim Women
Photography of Muslim women is generally considered offensive, and anyone caught taking pictures may face the wrath of their male relations, or may have to answer to the police. Therefore, anyone wanting to take pictures of women in their abayas should do so discretely and from a distance.
Most female citizens of Yemen are Muslim, and therefore normally dress in the abaya (also called the shaili), a black full-length covering. Koranic law dictates that the abaya be worn whenever in public. The abaya seems to come in many styles and varies from region to region throughout Yemen. Many are quite fashionable. Under the abaya, women wear loose sirwal, or trousers, and a kandura, a dress frequently embroidered in gold or silver.
The jambia is a traditional curved dagger worn at the waist by Yemeni men. (The jambia pictured here can best be seen by enlarging the picture). Archeological evidence suggests that jambias originated in about 500 B.C. The jambia is worn with the tip of the blade pointed toward the side, which is jamb in Arabic, hence the origin of the name. Jambias are usually handed down from generation to generation, and many are quite old and valuable. It is not uncommon for antique jambias to be sold for millions of dollars.
Jambias consist of a handle, a steel blade, and a sheath in which the dagger is carried. Most handles are made of exotic types of wood, but some of the older and more valuable jambias have handles made of rhinocerous horn or ivory. Because rhinocerous horn and ivory come from endangered species of animals, the handles are no longer made from these materials. However, rhinocerous horn or ivory are occasionally smuggled illegally into the country for the manufacture of jambia handles. No matter the material, many handles are finely decorated with silver or gold.
Jambias are worn in a belt made from tanned leather. Some of the finer belts are intricately engraved and decorated with gold filament.
Although originally used as a weapon, nowadays jambias can only be used in self-defense. If someone were to use a jambia improperly against another, he would be ostracized from his tribal group, and would also be subject to prosecution by the law. Jambias are only taken out of their sheaths in cases of self-defense, during the traditional bara'a dance, or to show to interested foreigners.
Despite being a desert country, Yemen has some fertile areas, especially wadis, in which most of the country's food is grown. Common crops grown in the country include bananas, mangoes, oranges and other citrus fruits, papayas, pomegranates, dates, figs, coffee beans, all sorts of vegetables, and several varieties of cereal.
Most Yemenis do not shop in modern shopping centers as are found in the West. Instead, they rely on street markets to purchase fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products, and fish on a daily basis. Even non-food items, such as motor oil, batteries, toiletries, etc. can be purchased at street markets. Throughout Yemen, from the largest cities to the smallest villages, street markets cater to locals by offering locally grown foods. For the visitor, street markets offer a glimpse into the daily lives of Yemenis, as well as great photographic opportunities.
First some misunderstandings:
1) "There is no limit on the importation of alcohol." Yes there is. Of course there is. This is a very traditional muslim country. Even though it's not mentioned on the big notice board in the luggage hall at Sana'a International Airport, nor on the website of the Yemen Tourist Board you are NOT allowed to bring in alcoholic beverages in unlimited quantities. Muslims (in fact anyone from a muslim country, whether he or she is mulsim or not) are not allowed to bring in alcohol at all. Other foreigners may bring in 2 or 3 bottles each - the rules are rather vague, but this is what the airport customs people will tell you. There are frequent random checks of luggage (there is no real green "Nothing to declare" lane).
2) "Qat dissolves over time. There is no spitting." No, it doesn't dissolve and yes, there is spitting.
3) "People are muslim, so the women have to be covered up from head to toe." Trying to be benevolent, I'd say this statement reflects a minority position that more than 9 out of 10 muslims in the world (men and women) would not want to be associated with. In fact there is nothing in the Qur'an that says women have to be covered to the extent they do in Yemen (and in Saudi),
4) It's true that generally speaking mosques are not accessible for non-muslims (don't know why - maybe to avoid the risk of someone getting the urge to convert?). There are several beautiful ancient mosques that can be visited, though: in Taiz, Jiblah and Zabid I was invited to come and marvel (no money was asked beforehand but I made sure to leave a tip to my instant guide); in Rada there is the magnificent Amariyya mosque, a real pearl which is now a museum and has not been re-consecrated.Related to:
- Road Trip
- Budget Travel
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