Especially when you are hiking cross-country, people from small villages will invite you to their house to eat, drink tea or chew quat leaves (the local drug). Even if they don`t speak your language they will indicate the invitation by moving their fingers to their mouth. They do mean it - it is not just politeness. If you don`t want to accept the offer, say "la, schukran" ("no, thank you").
Anywhere people may approach you to talk to you, brush up their English and ask you where you`re from and if you like Yemen (Feez al-Yemen?). The nice thing is that usually there is no hidden agenda but a true interest in the foreign guest and how he or she sees the Jemen.
Most countries in the Middle East allow foreigners to visit mosques with the exceptions of Saudi Arabia (good luck trying to enter as a tourist anyway) Kuwait and Yemen. Most local Yemenis will let you know anyway if there is not sign but knowing that you are not allowed will save you the hassle of being growled at in the future.
The first time I heard this being shouted at me I thought it was the Arabic word for Tourist. Not too hard to figure out who the visitor was around here. About the 3rd time this happened a small boy started shouting towards me and then he made the hand gesture of a camera taking a photograph. Mystery solved, somewhat. I took out my camera, a pose was taken and then I showed him the display in my digital camera. This suddenly produced a small joyous crowd. And then the request for more photos. Suddenly, I felt like I had just obtained a job as a photographer.
Later I went to Al-Tahrir Square (in Sana'a) and I saw something that made all this fun make sense. There were 2 photographers taking photos and they had props to make the pictures just a bit more interesting. Anything from birds to beads, they had it all. They take your picture, you pay them and then a few hours later - you have your portrait.
Than I realised. For many families, photos were not a possibility. Women for social reasons and men for financial.
Suddenly, I didn’t mind taking more photos and entertaining the crowds. For free!
The Yemenis are rather conservative in their view of women - you won`t see many unveiled Yemeni women on the city streets. As a western female traveler, you will therefore automatically stand out. People will probably stare at you because you are an unusual sight, but harrassment, flirting etc. are highly unlikely.
It is not necessary to imitate the local women`s traditional dress and put on a veil (as some tourists do), but I recommend "decent" clothing, meaning long, wide trousers, long-sleeved shirts covering the arms. It`s their country and their custom, so show a little respect.
Qat is an important part of Yemeni culture. As you walk around the suqs and towns you will notice many men with a large bulge in their cheek as they chew their qat and you can’t miss it being sold in the markets or growing on the terraces of the mountains.
It is a stimulant similar to "speed" & opinion is divided as to whether it is harmful or not. In the Hadramaut area qat chewers are viewed with great disapproval but elsewhere it is accepted as part of daily life.
It grows in most areas in Yemen, but grows better in the wetter highland areas and is sold in bundles, wrapped in leaves to keep it fresh, sometimes stored in a canvas bag. The smaller, younger leaves are favoured above the larger ones. After lunch is the time for qat chewing, when it is chewed for 2 to 3 hours with plenty of water to drink. Cost is between $1 and $15 for an afternoon chew depending on quality and it is bought fresh every day.
Qat was discovered by a goat herder about 400 years ago, and now 85% of men and 35% of women in Yemen chew Qat.
My curiosity got the better of me and I found it quite a pleasant experience chewing qat for 3 hours. It certainly makes the mind feel clear and keeps you awake and alert. I think the qat culture can be compared to our British drinking culture to get it into perspective. We view qat with suspicion but the Yemenis would never consider having alcohol.
Quat is a plant whose leaves have a mildly intoxicating effect when chewed. The Yemenis are very fond of quat as you can easily see: Anybody looking like a chipmunk is chewing quat, stuffing his mouth with large quantities of leaves.
Quat is both a blessing and a curse for the Yemen: On the one hand, it is a steady source of income for local farmers; the immigration from the land into the cities is less than in other third world - countries; therefore, no slums. On the other hand, quat eats up the scarce water and land resources that could be used for agriculture, and the productivity drops to zero in the quat-chewing-hours.
Political Graffiti adorns many mountains, house walls, and other buildings where there is a suitable flat surface.
The Horse is the symbol of the current presidents party and the Half Sun is the Islamic fundamentalist party. The symbols are often seen together on a wall but usually in different colours. I was told the reason for this is that one party will have put their symbol first, then the other party added theirs.
After being split into North Yemen and South Yemen in the 1960's The country was re-unified by the current president in 1990, but political borders were not established until 1992 with Oman and 1994 with Saudi Arabia.
Here are a few facts about Yemen today:
The population is around 22 million.
Literacy is 58% with English widely spoken, mostly in cities and larger towns.
53% of the country is agricultural with Qat being the main crop. Also grown are coffee, sourgum, fruit and vegetables.
85% of men and 35% of women in Yemen chew qat.
Natural Resources are Oil and Gas
Oil was discovered in 1980 and there are currently 10 companies producing 320,000 barrels a day. Only 28% of reserves have been explored and reserves are estimated at 9718 billion barrels. The main production areas are Marib and Seiyun with exploration under way in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Socotra areas.
Average wage $8 per day
Petrol $0.30 per litre
Cigarettes $0.50 per pack
Qat $1 to $15 per day, depending on quality
A sheep $50 to $70
A goat $50 to $70
A camel $1000
A cow $600
The wheel barrow is an essentail part of Yemeni life.
It takes a while before you notice this, but soon you start to realise just how many uses the wheelbarrow has in everyday life. It is used to sell produce from at the markets and the roadside, to transport fruit, qat, fish, children, tourist souvenirs, mud for making bricks and numerous other items from one place to another. In Sana'a Souq we saw a line of 6 men lying in wheel barrows having an afternoon siesta. Unfortunately they didn't want to be photographed.
The advantages of the wheel barrow are that it makes it easier to move goods around over bumpy ground, it can get to places cars cannot, it is cheaper than a donkey or a camel, doesn't eat anything and can be pushed at quite a speed when laden with tourist souvenirs!
The Southern Arabian language dates from Sabaean times (Queen of Sheba) and had 29 letters, all in upper case. Lower case letters did not appear until the 9th century when books began to be copied and faster writing was required.
The Southern Arabian language was translated by two German scholars in the 1840's and was shown to be quite closely related to the phoenician language.
Inscriptions were mostly carved into stone and used to describe administrative and commercial achievements, battle victories and building work. The oldest found so far is from the 9th century BC, the most recent from the 2nd century BC.
You can see examples in the museum in Sana'a and at Marib.
Women in Yemen do not like tourists taking photographs of them. The men are generally OK at being photographed, but they are very protective of the women and if they see you photographing women they think that you are invading their privacy and
you will get a good telling off, a finger waved at you or even abuse shouted at you.
This varies from area to area. We found the Tihama area and the rural areas much more relaxed about it - the women here are not veiled. The worst areas were the highlands and the Hadramaut.
If you have a zoom lense you can pretend to be taking a street scene and just happen to include the women in the picture when they are not looking but pointing your camera at close range is just asking for trouble.
Most men in Yemen own a kalashnikov rifle, as well as a Jambiya, and it is quite normal to see men strolling around with their kalashnikov slung over their shoulder like a fashion accessory. The man in the picture was walking through the main square in Sana'a.
At first it is a little worrying, as we are so unused to this in England and if we saw somebody carrying a gun we would assume they were planning an armed robbery. However in Yemen it is not the case and is just a sign of manhood, along with the Jambiya.
I suppose you could say the kalashnikov and Jambiya are the Yemeni man's essential fashion accessories - like designer shoes and handbags.
The Jambiya is a curved dagger worn by all men in Yemen. Historically The Jambiya’a has been a tradition in Yemen for over 1400 years and symbolises honour, fashion, tradition, family and wealth. When a boy reaches the age of around 14 his father will either pass his Jambiya on to his son if he is the eldest or buy him one. But the Jambiya is the property of the whole family if it has been passed down through the generations and the son has to get permission from all the family if he wants to sell it. The Jambiya is kept in a curved holder and worn on an elaborate embroidered belt around the waist. The blade itself is only slightly curved (picture 2).
Costs vary from $10 to $1million! One was sold last year for $1 million, but this was a very rare one. Obviously the rhino horn handle ones are more valuable.
The best quality ones come from the family makers of Saifani, Assadis and Zalat and the craft is passed down through generations of each family. Each family style varies as does the colour – Saifanis are red, yellow, orange and green while Assidis are black. Tribes or clans also have different colours – the Hashid clan have green Jambiya’as and the Hakial clan have light tan ones.
They can be made from silver, gold, wood, glass marble and fish bone as well as rhino horn. As a frequent traveller to Africa it is hard to come to terms with the rhino horn Jambiya but most people nowadays cannot afford to pay the price for the rare rhino horn and most new ones are made of other materials. However, rhino horn is still smuggled in via Ethiopia.
You can tell the rhino horn Jambiya by its green colour, which is a natural result of the horn ageing (picture 4).
QAT (pronounced Kat) is the very soul of Yemen. It is not just leaves which are chewed on; it is the way of life, friendship culture and conversation. At first glance it looks like long green leaves stuffed in huge amounts into the mouth and bulging to one side. It was not until I was asked by the receptionist at my hotel to go to the market with him and buy some Qat did I understand how important those little green leaves are to the Yemeni people. When I first sat down to chew my Qat the other men asked how much I paid and inspected my purchase. Passing approval for quality and a good bargain, they even selected the leaves for me. Even after painfully bulging my left cheek, they still insisted that I must stuff more. This results in the slow chewing that you see of Qat. With that much in your mouth, there is no other choice. I thought is tasted similar to grass. It is chewed and dissolves over time. There is no spitting or reason to do so. And then the conversation began. Supposedly it is mildly narcotic, but I do not agree. The leaves are grown on a tall tree and the crop is worth millions of dollars to the economy. It is priceless in social circles. Qat is the reason for almost all gatherings other than prayer and no social function would be without it.
In pre-christian times Frankincense was 12 times more expensive than gold and was used in all the ancient ceremonies and rituals – burials, marriages, and births as well as in the home for freshening the air, and aiding sleep. In Roman times the cost of one pound in weight of Frankincense was more than 2 weeks salary and added to that was the cost of transportation.
The Frankincense route was the oldest and richest trade route in the ancient world. It is the sap of the olibanum tree which is dried and harvesting was done by an elite class of families who were bound to follow strict rules and traditions. They were not allowed to come into contact with any pollution such as having sex or contact with the dead during the harvesting time to keep the purity of the harvest.
Different qualities and grades of Frankincense came from different types of tree and different areas. The boswelia sacra tree produces the highest quality. Trees were cultivated to supplement the natural supply as demand was so high.
Before the trade winds were discovered the route passed through ancient cities of Yemen - Qana, Marib, Shabwa and on to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Palestine.
By the 3rd century AD Frankincense was no longer used to such a large extent because of Christianity and its value also declined.
Shibam is a good place to buy Frankincense and there are different varieites and grades to choose from. Most Frankincense today comes from the island of Socotra and from Oman.
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